When International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch left town Sunday, he left behind some encouraging words and a hint that seeing may lead to believing in Salt Lake City's Winter Olympics bid.

"Maybe the next six weeks are the most important. Bring more members of the International Olympic Committee to Salt Lake City," he advised.In six weeks the 92-member IOC will gather in Birmingham, England, to pick one of the six competing cities to host the 1998 Winter Olympics. Forty-eight IOC members have seen what Salt Lake City has to offer, "but 48 is not 91," said Samaranch, who opts not to vote.

At a press conference an hour prior to his departure Sunday, Samaranch suggested that the firsthand evaluations of Salt Lake City by IOC members have helped the city's bid.

"Members who came here before were very much impressed," Samaranch said, adding that those impressions were shared with other IOC members. "Many of them reported to me that Salt Lake City is a very strong candidate."

And while maintaining his impartiality in the face of a television reporter who wanted to know "Are we number one?" Samaranch said, "Maybe I will add only one word: It is a very, very strong candidate."

Contributing to the city's strength is President Bush, who surprised Samaranch with a phone call Sunday morning after the IOC president attended Mass in the Holy Cross Hospital chapel.

"He called to thank me for visiting Salt Lake City," Samaranch said.

Samaranch, a former Spanish ambassador to Moscow, said the phone call was significant because it established that "the president of the United States is fully supporting the bid of Salt Lake City."

Samaranch said that while he had the president on the line he thanked him for the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf war.

"Thanks to the efforts of the United States and the allies, we will have peace for many, many years, and thanks to peace, we will have many successful Olympic Games," Samaranch said.

Flanked by Gov. Norm Bangerter, Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis and other local dignitaries and Olympic bid organizers, Samaranch told reporters that he was as impressed as other IOC members have been with the city's facilities and its people.

He specifically cited the proposed Olympic Village at the University of Utah, the "wonderful" new Jazz sports arena and the Salt Palace Convention Center. The center has twice as much space as is needed for a news media headquarters, he said.

During his two-day visit, the IOC president also inspected the Park City ski area and other proposed venues and attended a Utah Symphony concert and Ballet West gala.

"One of the most important things in Salt Lake City is its people, who are very enthusiastic," Samaranch said.

The IOC president said Salt Lake City did well in a site evaluation report that will be released May 4. Also, he said that having the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta should not hurt Salt Lake's bid for the Winter Games.

DePaulis told reporters that Samaranch refrained from showing any favoritism, "But I got the impression that he feels we deserve to host the Games."

Although Samaranch chooses not to vote in the Olympics site selections, his opinions are believed to carry a great deal of weight within the IOC community. He has been an IOC member since 1966 and president since 1980.

Next on his itinerary is an inspection of Nagano, Japan, which is often mentioned as the "frontrunner" in the race for the 1998 Games. Also in the running are Aosta, Italy; Jaca, Spain; Ostersund, Sweden; and Sochi, Soviet Union.