WASHINGTON Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to take a step this week toward a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, a senior Republican official said on Tuesday.
The official, who asked to remain unidentified, said Gingrich is expected to announce the formation of a presidential "exploratory" committee, a key first step toward a White House bid.
He would become the first prominent Republican to take such a step in what has been a slow start in the race to decide who will oppose President Barack Obama's re-election bid in 2012.
But others are expected to follow suit in the weeks and months ahead, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Still unclear are the plans of such potential candidates as Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Gingrich, 67, led the Republican "revolution" that took control of the House in 1994 elections and he was House speaker from 1995 to 1999.
He is now chairman of American Solutions, a group that advances conservative causes, and has been traveling frequently to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to test the waters.
FORCEFUL CRITIC OF OBAMA
Gingrich has been a forceful critic of Obama and for years has been talking about the same issues that gave birth to the conservative Tea Party movement -- government spending and debt.
He spearheaded a government shutdown in 1995-96 that later backfired on Republicans at the polls when President Bill Clinton was re-elected.
A Gingrich aide would not confirm Gingrich would set up an exploratory committee but said the former speaker will have a media availability in Atlanta on Thursday.
He is scheduled to speak to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in Iowa, on Monday, along with Pawlenty and another potential candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Gingrich is credited by conservatives as an idea man who speaks eloquently about America's problems and ways to address them. He has authored more than a dozen books.
On the down side, Gingrich has some personal baggage -- two divorces that might hurt him with evangelical voters.
An average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics puts him in fourth place in the Republican race with 9.7 percent, behind other potential candidates Huckabee at 19 percent, Romney at 18.6 percent and Palin at 16 percent.
Gingrich lives in the Washington suburbs but there has been speculation that if he does ultimately seek the presidency, he would place his campaign headquarters in Atlanta. He represented Georgia while in the House.
(Editing by Eric Beech)