ATLANTA Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich on Thursday edged toward becoming the first big-name Republican to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
Gingrich, known for budget battles with President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, said he would explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in the weeks ahead.
"We are excited about exploring whether there is sufficient support for my potential candidacy for president of this exceptional country," Gingrich and his wife, Callista, said on newtexplore2012.com.
He stopped short of announcing a formal presidential exploratory committee. That gives him time to work out his extensive business affairs before becoming a formal candidate.
Gingrich's tiptoe closer to a race reflected the slow pace of the Republican campaign to decide who will challenge Obama in 2012. No prominent Republican has yet made the plunge, although several are close to announcements in the weeks and months ahead.
While Republicans won big in November congressional elections, most agree that it will be difficult to unseat Obama particularly if the U.S. jobless rate shows improvement from its current 9 percent.
Gingrich, 67, should be considered a "long shot" because some evangelical voters are wary of the fact that he was twice divorced before his current marriage, said Merle Black, political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Gingrich has a lot of political talent. He can make succinct arguments and criticisms. But he has had a lot of problems in the past with indiscipline ... and in a presidential campaign that can be a big problem," Black said.
Gingrich, who believes Obama has saddled America with deeper debt and deficits, has flirted with a presidential race for years. He led the Republican "revolution" that took control of the House in 1994 elections and he was House speaker from 1995 to 1998.
Gingrich's Republicans shut down the government in a standoff with Clinton. Republicans were seen as losing that fight as the Democratic president was re-elected in 1996, but Gingrich argues the standoff set the stage for a 1996 budget deal that led to a big drop in spending.
Government spending is again a major bone of contention with Republicans, and the budget deficit is set to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year.
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.
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal said former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney lead with field among Republican voters with 25 percent and 21 percent with Gingrich in third at 13 percent.
Fox News on Wednesday suspended Gingrich from his role as a paid analyst, along with former Senator Rick Santorum, because the two have been weighing a run for the Republican nomination.
A little-known candidate joined the Republican presidential fray on Thursday.
Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer said in Baton Rouge that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee to consider whether he should seek the Republican nomination.
(Writing by Steve Holland, editing by Alistair Bell)