Newt Gingrich stumbles out of starting gate in the race to lead Republicans

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was expected last night to signal his intention to become a contender in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination while stopping short of taking the usual first official step of creating a presidential exploratory committee.

For Mr Gingrich, 67, who left Congress more than a decade ago to write books and set up a conservative think-tank, the days leading up to a visit to his home state of Georgia yesterday were marked by confusion. One minute his aides were whispering to reporters that, yes, he would announce an exploratory committee – the next minute they were retracting it.

It was thanks to Fox News that we knew something was afoot this week, but not because of anything it reported. Rather, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network announced that Mr Gingrich's long-held gig as a paid on-air pundit was ending. He can have the job back only if he says he does not have White House ambitions.

That Mr Gingrich – who some Americans remember as the conservative nemesis of Bill Clinton during his presidency (in budget clashes Mr Gingrich forced the federal government to shut down twice) – will run does not seem to be much in doubt. But his toe-dipping hesitations have only underscored a wider impression that the Republicans are struggling to find anyone able – and willing – to try to block Barack Obama from winning a second term.

Just two months away from the first scheduled debate between Republican hopefuls, no one among the likely mainstream candidates has formally declared. At this point four years ago, both parties had a full card of nomination-eager hopefuls jostling for attention and raising money. Of course, things are different for Democrats this time, with no serious challenger to Mr Obama likely to emerge from inside the party.

Other Republicans who are thought likely to eventually throw their hats in the ring include Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, all of whom are former Republican governors. Sarah Palin remains a tantalising question mark. She may well demur, in which case Tea Party supporters might look to Michele Bachmann, a radical conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, to try her luck.

If there is a consensus view of Mr Gingrich it is that he is formidably clever, has a huge base of conservative admirers and is a fundraising king. But at the same time, some worry that he has skeletons that could slow his momentum, not least among them stories of past marital infidelities committed with the woman who is now his third wife. He is also one of most polarising figures on the political scene, even after so many years away from Capitol Hill.

"I know of no other candidate in my lifetime who will begin a run for president with more knowledge, skills and baggage," noted Ed Rollins, former political director in the Reagan White House. "Controversy could be Newt's middle name but 'brilliant' and 'frustrating' are the adjectives most used by his friends and casual observers."

Even without creating an exploratory committee, Mr Gingrich can, by simply announcing his "interest" in seeking his party's nomination, legally begin to raise money and launch formal polling to gauge his levels of support in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where primary voting will kick off in slightly less than 12 months. Public polling so far shows him doing not as well as some of his likely rivals, including Mr Huckabee and Mr Romney.

Gingrich on the record

On President Barack Obama

"What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behaviour can you... piece together [his actions]?"

On Islam

"America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilisation."

On politics

"I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

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