WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Will this be the year that Republican Newt Gingrich finally steps into the presidential race, after years of talking about it?
The former House of Representatives speaker, who led a conservative upsurge in the 1990s but lost a fight over government spending, is nearing a decision on whether to run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Gingrich would seem to be a natural for a campaign expected to be centered around the economy. He has been talking for years about the same issues that gave birth to the conservative Tea Party movement -- government spending and debt.
And he bears the scars to prove it. In 1995, Gingrich was the top House Republican in a showdown with then-President Bill Clinton over government spending. When Republicans in Congress refused to fund some federal agencies, parts of the government ran out of money and shut down.
But instead of earning plaudits, Gingrich was blamed and Clinton won re-election in 1996. Republicans who now control the House are well aware of the history and working to avoid a shutdown in the coming days that might give a political edge to President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Gingrich 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.
Aides say he will decide in the first week of March whether to establish a presidential exploratory committee, a key first step toward a White House bid.
Gingrich is credited by conservatives as an idea man who speaks fluently about America’s problems and ways to address them. He has authored more than a dozen books.
“Newt is the intellectual heavyweight leader of the Republican Party,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “No one knows if he’s decided that he’s going to run or not, but his entrance into the Republican nomination fight would be good for the party because it would raise the level of debate in a positive manner.”
Gingrich bolstered that image in a recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he focused on the need for a new U.S. energy policy aimed at producing more domestic energy, creating jobs and weaning the country from oil exported from unstable Middle Eastern governments.
“For the last 30 years we’ve had the worst possible national security policy in energy and it’s time we’ve stopped it, and it’s times we passed an aggressively pro-American jobs, aggressively pro-American energy,” he said.
On the down side, Gingrich has some personal baggage -- two divorces that might hurt him with evangelical voters.
“I’ve had a life which, on occasion, has had problems,” Gingrich said at a University of Pennsylvania event this week. “I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether that’s their primary concern.”
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Gingrich will have to overcome with conservative activists “any hesitation that they might have that he is damaged goods.”
It is unclear whether Gingrich would want to give up chairing the lucrative American Solutions to run for president. He opted against a 2008 run for this reason.
Gingrich polls well among conservatives. 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 Mike Huckabee at 19 percent, Mitt Romney at 18.6 percent and Sarah Palin at 16 percent.
Many Republicans believe he could get past whatever questions linger around him from his personal life.
“Clearly that will be an issue for some,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “But as he has said, if this is a race about the past those will be issues for people. It it’s about the future he will have a viable chance of being part of the debate.”
Editing by John Whitesides