WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a Republican powerhouse in the 1990s, announced that he was joining the race for the party's presidential nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
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The deeply conservative Gingrich ranks among the best-known Republicans in the still-forming group of candidates for next year's contest for the White House.Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field
He also brings considerable negative political baggage: three marriages, resignation under an ethics cloud while leader of the House and a tendency to shoot-from-the-hip when speaking.
In 1994, Gingrich led the Republican Party to its first House majority in 40 years. But any Republican candidate could face insurmountable difficulties in defeating the incumbent Obama, who remains personally popular with Americans and has seen his job approval rating rise notably in the early days after the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.Story: Poll: Economy fears temper Obama's bin Laden bump
Obama was expected to raise as much as $1 billion to finance his bid for re-election and has proven himself a highly effective campaigner.
History would suggest a difficult path for Gingrich. While many former presidents and candidates for that office have served in the House, the last president to have served as House Speaker was James K. Polk, a Tennessee Democrat, in 1844.
Successful presidential candidates more often move into the job from the vice presidency, the Senate or the governorship of one of the 50 states.Story: Lesser-knowns get spotlight at GOP presidential debate
Gingrich has made no secret of his White House ambitions. He has been raising money and assembling a campaign team for months and has traveled frequently to states that hold early presidential primary elections or caucuses. Doing well in early primaries is considered necessary for a candidacy to prosper.
"I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote Monday in his official announcement on Facebook and Twitter. He said he would talk more about his bid Wednesday on Fox News.
Getting into the race marks a comeback attempt by the former congressman from Georgia who stepped down from the House after four tumultuous years in the top position as speaker.
A spending fight between Gingrich and President Bill Clinton led to a shutdown of part of the federal government in 1995 and 1996. He left Congress in 1999.Story: Iowa GOP donors court New Jersey's Christie
Since then, he has established a network of nonprofit and lucrative business ventures. He also has churned out a steady stream of books and made frequent speaking engagements.
In recent months Gingrich has lambasted Obama's federal health care reform law and has criticized the Democrat's foreign policy as "clueless."
Gingrich is dogged by extramarital affairs and having been married three times. He has been working to make inroads with social conservatives critical to the Republican primary base, highlighting his conversion to Roman Catholicism after marrying his third wife, Callista.Story: Gingrich's third wife to take central role in presidential bid
He also has been criticized as a glib political figure who is not long on consistency in public statements. He calls for a muscular approach to combating terrorism. But he was widely mocked recently for an about-face on Libya policy. First he said he would "exercise a no-fly zone" and get rid of Moammar Gadhafi. Two weeks later, he said: "I would not have intervened. ... I would not have used American and European forces."
This year has been highly unusual in that possible Republican candidates are very late in announcing their intentions.
While the initial field is expected to be crowded, it also is more divided than usual, given that the mainstream of the party faces a splintering off of ultraconservative Tea Party factions and others with extreme populist or libertarian messages.Story: Big GOP donors adopt wait-and-see 2012 tack
According to Gallup polling records dating back to 1952, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the party standard-bearer, the Republicans never have been without a leading candidate at this stage in the campaign cycle.
So far and in addition to Gingrich, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have taken the first official step by forming campaign exploratory committees. About a dozen Republicans are believed to be contemplating a candidacy.
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