- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich intends to take a formal step toward entering the 2012 presidential race within the next two weeks, Republican officials said Sunday, after months spent traveling to important primary and caucus states.

These officials declined to say precisely what type of announcement the 67-year-old former Georgia lawmaker would make, but added they expect him to make clear his determination to run.

If so, he would be the first Republican to do so in a slow-to-develop field of potential challengers to President Barack Obama.

Mr. Gingrich became the first Republican speaker in 40 years after he led his party to control of the House in the 1994 elections. He left Congress two turbulent terms later, intensely controversial and under pressure from disillusioned one-time supporters in the rank and file.

In the ensuing years, he has developed something akin to a one-man political brand, speaking out on health care and other issues, building a fundraising operation, traveling widely and offering advice privately and publicly to Republicans in office.

Among the other potential Republican presidential contenders are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who worked closely with Mr. Gingrich in the mid-1990s as party chairman. Also considering candidacies are Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and the party’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Once the epitome of the Republican establishment, Mr. Gingrich in recent months has worked to align himself with tea party adherents who challenged the GOP hierarchy and provided much of the political energy behind the party’s 2010 electoral gains.

“Two years ago today, Americans from all across the nation and from all walks of life began a movement on a national scale,” he wrote Sunday on his Facebook page. “Fed up with a Republican Party that forgot its reformer roots and a Democratic Party where every solution involved more government, tea party rallies began brewing in over 50 cities with an estimated 30,000 people attending.”

Mr. Gingrich also has sought close ties to Christian conservatives who are particularly influential in Iowa and in Southern states that often prove pivotal in Republican presidential primary campaigns. But he has been divorced twice and remarried, which could be a factor with conservatives.

The officials who described his plans did so on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

In an e-mail, his spokesman, Rick Tyler, said, “We have said for weeks now that Newt will decide whether or not to move to an explore phase by late February-early March. We are sticking to that schedule.”

Later in the day, Randy Evans, a lawyer for Mr. Gingrich, said in an e-mail, “My expectation is that he will make an official announcement about an exploratory committee within the next ten (10) days. I also expect that it will happen in Georgia.”

Mr. Gingrich first flirted with running for president in 1996, when he was speaker.

In recent weeks, he has visited Iowa, where the first 2012 Republican convention delegates will be picked early next year, and appeared at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington attended by thousands of activists. According to his website, he intends to appear at a breakfast in mid-March in New Hampshire, site of the first 2012 primary election.

He has called for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency and creation of an Environmental Solutions Agency to reward innovation, and attacked Mr. Obama as clueless when it comes to foreign policy.

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