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Gingrich to leave campaign, but not the national spotlight

Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally on the night of the New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware primaries in Concord, North Carolina April 24, 2012.
Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally on the night of the New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware primaries in Concord, North Carolina April 24, 2012.Chris Keane / Reuters

Newt Gingrich will suspend his campaign next week, ending his pursuit of the presidency, but almost certainly not his life in the national spotlight.

NBC News learned that Gingrich will suspend his campaign on May 1, and may well endorse Mitt Romney, his nemesis throughout the primary season.

But if one thing seems unassailably true about the end of Newt Gingrich's bid for the presidency, it's that we haven't seen the end of Newt Gingrich.

The former House speaker's career has, if nothing else, been marked by its series of peaks and valleys. Gingrich ends his campaign for the Republican nomination exploring the depths of one such valley: his campaign wracked with debt, his political stature at an all-time low within the GOP, and his private business seriously threatened.

But like a cat with nine lives, throughout his career, Gingrich has shown a penchant for achieving unthinkable political resurrections. While he might have cashed in several lives during this campaign -- and had certainly spent more in his preceding political life -- it seems unthinkable that the public has seen the last of this man.

“We had an avalanche fall on us, and Newt dug himself out. And that's the story of his entire career,” said Rick Tyler, the spokesman for a pro-Gingrich super PAC. Tyler was a longtime aide to the former House speaker before having joined a mass resignation of senior staff last June -- a particular low point for the candidate and his campaign.

Those mass resignations came after a rocky rollout for Gingrich, during which he criticized a controversial budget drafted by House Republicans. Gingrich also struggled with the revelation of a six-figure line of credit he’d maintained with the jeweler Tiffany’s, and an ill-timed Greek vacation he took with his wife Callista, an omnipresent figure on the campaign trail.

His campaign was considered all but dead after June 9, 2011 -- the day of those resignations. But students of his career could just as easily draw parallels with other scenes from the Gingrich political biography, moments when it also appeared his luck had run out.

“I think there's a little bit of Richard Nixon in Newt Gingrich. His political career was pronounced dead as many times as well,” said Craig Shirley, the GOP public affairs veteran with close ties to Gingrich. Shirley, a biographer of Reagan, is currently working on a political biography of Gingrich.

“He likes the high wire in the same way that Nixon did,” Shirley said of Gingrich. “They all like the high wire, but there's some who handle it better than others.”

There are many instances when, over the last three and a half decades, Gingrich had appeared to fall out of favor with both Republicans and voters at large. There were his failed early bids for Congress in the 1970s and clashes with Republican leaders throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

His biggest political achievement came in 1994, when Gingrich led Republicans to win back a majority in the House for the first time since 1954. But his tenure was well-documented for its internal and external tumult, and led to an attempted coup toward its end. Gingrich resigned amid growing Republican anger toward his leadership following the elections of 1998 – a dramatic development used to great effect by Mitt Romney’s campaign throughout the 2012 primaries.

That resignation might have otherwise meant the end for any other political figure, but the story of Newt Gingrich has always been a story of reinvention and resurrection.

In the more than 10 years since leaving Congress, Gingrich took on the persona of a party elder. He became a commentator on FOX News, a lucrative opportunity, and made millions more through consulting and the establishment of “Newt, Inc.,” the consortium of interest groups built in his name that has pervaded Washington.

His brand had been rehabilitated sufficiently enough by 2011 to wage a credible bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but Gingrich’s campaign was marked by the same turbulence that had defined his entire career.

Gingrich soldiered on following the June resignations, only to re-emerge in late November 2011 as the top choice of Republicans in the first nominating contest in Iowa, at least according to polls. But his presidential aspirations bottomed out again after suffering an onslaught of negative advertising from the Romney campaign.

Undeterred, Gingrich rebounded again to shock Romney in the South Carolina primary – the first time a candidate had won the influential primary since its inception without continuing to become the eventual Republican nominee.

Then came the Florida primary several days later, where Romney again dispensed with the former House speaker by using a barrage of critical advertisements. It was Gingrich’s last true gasp as a candidate. He retreated to Georgia, the state he had served as a member of Congress, and hitched his candidacy to winning that state – and only – on Super Tuesday.

Even in nearby Mississippi and Alabama several weeks later, Gingrich lost those primaries to Rick Santorum. His inability to score a meaningful win fueled perceptions of Gingrich as a kind of “ghost candidate,” even though he defiantly vowed to push forward with his campaign through the August convention in Tampa, where he would conceivably challenge Romney in a messy floor fight for the nomination.

His relationship with FOX lies in tatters following the publication of a report in which Gingrich made critical comments of the network before a private crowd. More significantly, the Center for Health Transformation – the crown jewel of Gingrich’s personal empire – was forced to file for bankruptcy in the former speaker’s absence. His campaign is millions in debt, and CHT’s bankruptcy will likely cost Gingrich some personal wealth, too.

Gingrich’s path to redemption – again – is steep, possibly steeper than at any previous point in his career.

That path begins with a speech at the Tampa convention this summer meant to unify Republicans behind Romney, despite the personal animosity over time between Romney and Gingrich, said Shirley.

“Newt has the ability to arrest people because he’s interesting,” said Rick Tyler of the attributes that might help Gingrich accomplish another turnaround. “That didn’t translate into people wanting him to be president.”

Fans of the former speaker assert that it would be inconceivable for Gingrich, at the least an irrepressible gadfly in Washington, to fade from public view.

When will Americans finally see Gingrich’s final act as a public figure?

“I guess when he's getting last rites,” Shirley said.