WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and conservative leader, said Saturday that he had decided not to seek the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
"Sometimes you have to decide what the right role is," he said in a telephone interview. "This is right for me."
The Georgia Republican said his legal advisors told him Saturday morning that federal law would prohibit his fundraising for a presidential race unless he quit a fledgling political action organization that separately raises money to seek solutions to national problems.
"Anything that could be construed as helping my campaign in any way is potentially a criminal offense" under the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, Gingrich said.
Gingrich, 64, who placed third in some early national polls of Republican voters, said he had planned to announce an exploratory campaign operation Monday.
He had taken a leave of absence from his role as a political commentator on Fox News, had prepared a campaign website and was committed to trying to raise $30 million as the necessary ante for a national race, he said.
"We were ready to explore," he said. "But I was not prepared to walk away from something we had spent a year building just to explore."
Gingrich said he decided to abandon his presidential ambitions rather than step down as chairman of American Solutions. The organization, which claims 19,000 members, has sponsored 2,000 workshops nationwide, organized online seminars and conducted other programs. It aims to find comprehensive solutions to immigration, national defense, education and other national issues, according to its website.
"If I walked away on Monday, it probably would not survive without me," Gingrich said. "In a few years, once it gets going, it can survive."
Gingrich's absence from the presidential race could benefit the candidacy of Fred Thompson, a former senator and fellow Southerner who has sought to appeal to the party's core conservative voters. Gingrich remains popular among many conservatives, who remember him as the articulate, hard-charging architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, which ended 40 years of Democratic control.
But given his relatively modest poll numbers, his exit may have little of a ripple effect.
"Since very few people really thought he would get in, his decision not to run really doesn't change things," said Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report, an independent political newsletter that reported that Gingrich was polling about 6% over the last five months.
Gingrich, a former college professor who represented Atlanta for 20 years in the House, stepped down after four years as speaker and left Congress amid ethics allegations, income tax questions and heavy Republican losses in the 1998 midterm election.
He sounded wistful Saturday about quitting the presidential race before he had even begun.
"We had a surprising number of people contacting us," Gingrich said. "The first response was pretty encouraging. Whether we would have gotten to $30 million, I can't say. Whether we could win, I can't say."
But he kept the door open when asked if he would consider a race in 2012.
"Make a note now," he said. "Call me the day after the 2008 election."