LAST WEEK, NEWT GINGRICH SPOKE a few surprising words -- words that went astonishingly unnoticed, given their ominous ring. "We may lose next year," he told the annual meeting of GOPAC, the political-action committee he ran for nine years, "but in 11 months, working as a team, we made the tough decisions and laid our careers on the line." Wait a moment: lose next year? Was that Newt Gingrich, the leader of the political realignment, slayer of the New Deal, the most powerful congressional politician since Henry Clay?

It was, and he was reflecting a mood that is spreading throughout Republican Washington. Losing the budget battle, losing the White House, losing the House -- losses that would have been inconceivable a few months ago, all of a sudden are part of the Republican conversation.

The inconceivable could happen only because most Republicans have been addressing the nation more like accountants than leaders. Conversations with your accountant are never something you look forward to, even when the news is good. "Yes, we are going to balance the budget in seven years, save the Medicare trust fund, and cut billions of dollars from federal programs," the accountants say, but they offer nothing to fulfill the public longing to live in a better nation, one in which compassion and community are at least as important as economic effeciency. To judge from the latest polls, the nation seems to be replying, "Fine, but the other guys are going to do similar things, and they have a bigger heart." In a recent CNN/Gallup poll, the president is leading Republicans in public confidence by 48 percent to 42 percent.

What's going on here? How can a president who only last month backtracked on his proudest achievement-the 1993 tax increase -- and who is held in contempt by his own troops on the Hill have a 52 percent approval rating? And how can the speaker of the House, who has delivered on the legislative agenda of the revolution more decisively than even his most ardent supporters thought possible, have a 49 percent negative rating? Most important, how can the revolution move forward when Republicans have allowed its opponents to define it?

There are those who believe that, given his combative nature, Gingrich might as well give up on pesonal popularity, and that his best bet is to continue to concentrate on maintaining the coalition on the Hill and shepherding the legislative agenda. If the Republican nominee ends up being Bob Dole, they argue, and if either Dole bests Clinton next November or Clinton is reelected, Gingrich will continue moving the revolution forward as speaker of the House.

But where is it written in stone that Gingrich will still be speaker in January 19977 The upcoming presidential race will be a referendum on the Republican agenda. If the nominee turns out to be unable to articulate the vision of the revolution, he will not only fail to win the White House, he could drag others to defeat with him -- putting the House, and the revolution itself, at risk.

If we are confident in the revolution, how can we continue to sleepwalk through the nominating process, and wake up, when it's too late, with a nominee using the megaphone of a presidential campaign to explain to the nation a revolution he does not understand? The prospect is as painful as hearing a Schubert song warbled by Roseanne.

Running for president would undoubtedly be the biggest gamble of Gingrich's political career. And there is absolutely no self-interested reason for him to do it. He has said that he would run only if there were a clear moral imperative for him to do so. As he and his wife contemplate the decision over the Thanksgiving break, here are not one but two moral imperatives, and, for good measure, a strategic imperative as well.

The first moral imperative was expressed by Gingrich in his first speech as speaker: "How can any American read about an l 1-year-old buried with his teddy bear because he killed a 14-year-old, and then another 14-year-old killed him, and not have some sense of "My God, where has this country gone?" How can we not decide that this is a moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery, and how can we not insist that every day we take steps to do something?" The Republican message so far has been expressed not in terms of a moral crisis but in terms of dollars and cents. The connection between balancing the budget and turning lives around has simply not been made; neither has the connection between the level of pain in America that Gingrich has spoken about and the legislative agenda on the Hill.

Precisely because Gingrich is right about the moral crisis the country is facing -- millions of lives and entire communities destroyed by drugs, alcohol, gangs, and violence -- there is a moral imperative for him to fill the leadership vacuum and address the growing devastation.

The second moral imperative was again identified by the speaker in his speech on the night of the Million Man March: "I don't think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope, and unless we're prepared to roll up our sleeves and we are prepared to reach out and to say, "I'll give you an alternative...'" There is a moral imperative to articulate the alternative not every now and then but with a sense of urgency, day in and day out, in full-length speeches and in answers at press conferences, on talk radio and on Oprah and on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, until this becomes a revolution with a human face and Americans recognize it as their own.

The presidential race provides an ideal opportunity to use the bully pulpit to paint vivid pictures of how we will rebuild our communities and renew American civilization. There is a moral imperative not only to demonstrate how rotten and full of holes is the celebrated government safety net but to use the spotlight of presidential politics to become part of the solution -- to challenge Americans to join in weaving a new and true safety net out of their own actions and compassion, to make a lasting difference in their own communities.

Now the strategic imperative for running. The risks of doing nothing -- of following the course of least resistance -- are always underestimated. Gingrich today is not the Gingrich of January 1995. He is still speaker of the House, but he is no longer Master of the Universe, with a president who feels compelled to remind the press corps that he is still relevant. And the speakership is going to decrease further in value if the message of the revolution continues to be communicated so poorly. While Gingrich is trapped in the role of combative legislator, and there is no ideological standard- bearer to rally 60 percent of the electorate behind the agenda, both the leader of the revolution and its legislative achievements will continue to lose support.

Politics, like life, is paradoxical. And the same strategic arguments that are used to dissuade Gingrich from running for president -- his duty to finish the job on the Hill and his very high negatives -- may be the most compelling arguments in favor of his candidacy. After all, the greatest obstacle to completing the job will be public opinion, and the most direct way for Gingrich to turn around both public opinion and his numbers may be to delegate the daily combat on the Hill to a team of his most able lieutenants and take the message to the valleys.

Is it not worth the sacrifice if Gingrich can be liberated from his coalition-building job in the House to build consensus in the country? And wouldn't the House freshmen be far more grateful to him if he helped create a national climate that would make it easier for them to defend their voting records when they're fighting for their seats next November?

Freshmen are looking carefully at the disappointing results of the November 7 elections and are not assuaged by the official GOP spin -- that Republican candidate Larry Forgy lost the governor's race in Kentucky only because he failed to respond to personal attacks by Paul Patton, his Democratic opponent. Don Ringe, who was the media consultant on Forgy's campaign and personally read over 4,000 responses to nightly tracking polls, is convinced that the Patton campaign's attacks on the Republican agenda were what really hurt Forgy. "Forgy's unfavorables," Ringe told me "were exactly the same as his opponent's right up to election night -- a relatively low 29 percent. It was not until the Democrats began running ads hanging Gingrich and Medicare around our necks that our numbers began to sink." Come next fall, Dick Morris will hang Gingrich and Medicare and school lunches and tax cuts for the rich and a whole lot more around the Republican candidates" necks. Gingrich nationalized the election in "94; Clinton will nationalize it in '96.

But just as the Gingrich of November 1995 is different from the one who assumed the speakership, so too the Gingrich of November 1996 could be a far different, far more inspiring public figure. Gingrich may be a lightning rod, but he also embodies the revolution like no one else. He is its most articulate, self-confident, and unapologetic voice, and he burns with conviction that America can and will be a better place because of it. And if he's sufficiently freed up from the punishing legislative schedule of the last few months, he can rediscover the youthful realization that drove him to dedicate his life to politics in the first place:

that at certain critical moments in history, effective leadership is all that stands between a civilization and its collapse.

There are times in life when risking everything is more prudent than protecting what you have. For Gingrich, this could be one of them. And if Gingrich fails to accept the mission, the mission does not go away. The hole in the heart of the Republican revolution remains, waiting for a leader to fill it.

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