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updated 3/24/2011 8:16:37 AM ET 2011-03-24T12:16:37

Likely Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has met his first debate opponent of the 2012 campaign season: himself.

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The former House speaker was quick to criticize President Barack Obama two weeks ago for not being more forceful in leading an international campaign to destroy Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and save rebels from impending defeat. Gingrich said the United States should tell Gadhafi "that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening."

On Wednesday, he did an about-face.

"I would not have intervened," he said in an interview with NBC News in the morning. "I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gadhafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces."

Video: Gingrich: Gadhafi has to be ousted (on this page)

By afternoon, he issued a statement explaining that he initially pushed for the airstrikes only after Obama declared on March 3 that "it's time for Gadhafi to go."

Did Obama violate the Constitution with Libya military action?

"Now that we have U.S. forces engaged, any result less than the removal of Gadhafi from power will be considered a defeat. For that reason, I believe we must support the mission and see it through," Gingrich said on his Facebook page.

An aide said Gingrich backed away from his support only after Obama made a humanitarian mission the centerpiece of the military action. That alone wasn't enough to justify the no-fly zone in accordance with the U.N. resolution, the aide said, and cited comments from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that "the goals of this campaign right now are limited, and it isn't about seeing (Gadhafi) go."

"The president's stated goal of removing Gadhafi changed. Gingrich's goal of removing Gadhafi — since the president made that the goal for the U.S. — has not changed," Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said. "The only rational purpose for an intervention is to replace Gadhafi."

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

On Monday, Obama reiterated "it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go." But he said the goal of U.S. military intervention was to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and protect its civilians, not to oust its leader.

Video: Libyan rebels struggle on front lines (on this page)

'The United States doesn't need anybody's permission'
For weeks, some of the likely Republican challengers to Obama's re-election campaign have been scathing in assessing Obama's handling of the crisis in Libya. A few called for a more forceful defense of the rebels, who have seized some Libyan cities and threatened Gadhafi's 42-year rule.

"The United States doesn't need anybody's permission. We don't need to have NATO, who frankly, won't bring much to the fight. We don't need to have the United Nations," Gingrich told Fox News Channel on March 7.

"All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening. And we don't have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gingrich: Gadhafi has to be ousted

  1. Closed captioning of: Gingrich: Gadhafi has to be ousted

    >>> the house from 1995 to 1999 . always good to see you. thanks for joining us.

    >> good to be with you.

    >> over the weekend you said you wanted the president to answer four questions so you could understand why he committed military resources to libya. the first, what is his standard for deciding to intervene. have you been able to answer that question?

    >> no. the standard he's fallen back to of humanitarian intervention could apply to north korea , sudan, zimbabwe, syria, yemen, bahrain. this isn't a serious standard. this is a public relations conversation.

    >> on thursday last week, moammar gadhafi said his troops were headed to benghazi and he was going to go into closets and find people. it sounded like he was promising a real slaughter. should the president have done nothing during that moment? the u.n. asked for help.

    >> first of all, the president of the united states doesn't report to the united nations . he works with the u.s. congress . i think the fact that this president has not, in a serious way, consulted congress is not looking at american interests. the arab league wanted us to do something. the minute we did, the arab league began criticizing us doing it. i think two wars in iraq and afghanistan is a lot. i think that the problems we have in pakistan, egypt, yemen go around the region. we could do this in all sorts of places. the sudanese government has been killing people for years and somehow all the major powers have waited thinking about it. i'm suggesting there is no standard here. the president said on march 3 gadhafi has to go. well, they are now saying this is a humanitarian intervention which is nonsense. if this is not designed to get rid of gadhafi then this makes no sense at all.

    >> two of the other questions you wanted the president to answer -- what is success? and what are we prepared to achieve that success? should getting rid of moammar gadhafi be the definition of success? what should we be willing to do to accomplish it?

    >> the president said publically that gadhafi should go. he's the one who said that.

    >> are you in favor of that? do you think moammar gadhafi has to go as a result of this military intervention ?

    >> i think -- let me draw a distinction. i would not have intervened. i think there were a lot of other ways to affect gadhafi . there are a lot of allies in the region we could have worked with. i would not have used american and european forces.

    >> we are there now. should it be part of the mission?

    >> having decided to go there, if gadhafi doesn't leave power it will be a defeat for the united states . it will lengthen our engagement, increase costs. at least according to the morning papers the white house refuses to tell congress whether they will ask for supplemental to pay for the war. i'm suggesting they are in an argument with allies over who runs the war. they are not willing to tell congress how much to pay for it. they can't agree on what the goals are. this is about as badly run as any foreign operation we have seen in our lifetime.

    >> let me take it a step further. if you think now success has to be determined by the removal of gadhafi , how far should we be willing to go? he stood on a balcony at his residence in tripoli last night and said, i am here, i am here, i am here. based on that information it would only take seconds for a cruise missile to join him there. should we kill moammar gadhafi ?

    >> i think when you are facing an enemy trying to kill your people you should take whatever steps are necessary to defeat him. we had no come punction about trying to target hussein. we should be clear that gadhafi is going to go. we are obviously now in this. that doesn't mean we should put in ground forces . we should help equip the libyan rebels. it means they ought to have coordinated air strikes . they ought to do what's necessary to win. i would let the military determine what's necessary to win. the cia and others help engage in it. i'd try to get arab allies in the fight.

    >> good to have you here. thanks for your time.

    >> thank you.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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