WASHINGTON Republican presidential candidates need to make a "clean break" from President George W. Bush and the U.S. government or they will lose in November 2008, a veteran Republican leader said on Friday.
"If you don't represent real change, you just gave away the 2008 election," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and now is flirting with a White House run.
Gingrich cited the Iraq war, the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina two years ago and the inability to control U.S. borders and illegal immigration as evidence of a need for a complete overhaul of the U.S. system of governing.
"Now that may or may not make the White House happy. But I think that's the whole point about making a clean break," Gingrich told a group of reporters over breakfast.
He added: "I believe for any Republican to win in 2008 they have to ... offer a dramatic, bold change. If we nominate somebody who has not done that, they get to be the nominee but there is very, very little likelihood that they can win."
Gingrich echoed the view of many political analysts who believe voters are looking for a big change in 2008 and that Democrats hold a natural advantage after eight years with Bush in the White House.
While Gingrich, who has been considering a late entry into the Republican presidential race, said "the odds are very high that I won't run," he did not completely rule it out.
He said he would not make a final decision before September 29, depending on whether he feels a candidate from the current Republican group can defeat the Democratic nominee and whether he would be able to raise at least $30 million for a race.
But Gingrich, who represented Georgia for 20 years, indicated that a push he is making for a grass-roots change in how the country is governed, with less partisanship, would take at least five years to develop into a coherent alternative to the current system.
DOES NOT TARGET BUSH
Gingrich said he did not intend to specifically target Bush, just that he is the current leader of a government that has taken decades to become overly bureaucratic and ineffective.
"This isn't about Bush," he said, calling the president "a very decent man" who "believes very deeply in what he is doing."
Still, he took issue with a number of Bush's policies, and questioned why Bush felt the need to make an address to the country on Iraq on Thursday night, after the top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, had already laid out the situation earlier in the week.
"The right two people to talk about Iraq were Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker," said Gingrich.
On Iraq, Gingrich said that "to stay the course I think in the long run is not a very sound strategy," and that the United States should work quickly to stop Iran's "proxy war" against U.S. troops in Iraq.
He said this should be done in a non-violent way, such as through diplomatic sanctions, economic pressure and covert action and "if necessary with indirect military application."
Washington accuses Iran of exporting improvised bombs to Iraqi militants that are killing Americans, a charge Tehran denies.