Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a news conference in the… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon that he had set up a website to promote a possible presidential candidacy, making his most public move yet toward a 2012 White House bid.
"Because of our concern for the future of the country, our concern for our grandchildren and all the children of the country ... we are today establishing a website, NewtExplore2012.com," Gingrich said. "We will look at this very seriously, and we will very methodically lay out the framework of what we do next."
Gingrich's announcement capped several days of confusing and contradictory leaks about his plans. Despite the name of his website, he stopped short of formally opening a federal exploratory committee because of the complications involved in unwinding his business interests, according to aides.
It's not clear exactly what this new phase entails. His bare-bones website -- which features a large photo of him and his wife, Callista, superimposed over an image of people enthusiastically waving American flags -- is soliciting donations and contact information for supporters. The money is being raised in accordance with federal election rules, which would apply if he formally got in the race.
"We'll be back," Gingrich told reporters. "I think you will have more than enough to write about in the near future."
Lawrence Noble, former counsel to the Federal Election Commission, said that the former speaker "appears to be using a provision in the FEC rules that allows someone to collect funds to decide if they want to become a candidate without registering with the FEC." The provision is not used often because there are restrictions on use of these "testing the-waters" accounts: They cannot grow too large; they cannot be used for advertising or other candidate activities, and if the tester becomes a candidate, all disclosure and record-keeping records apply from the very beginning of the effort.
Gingrich already has been aggressively laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, traveling frequently to key nominating states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
"He was one of the more active national Republicans in Iowa, helping us in 2010," Iowa Republican state chair Matt Strawn told reporters in Washington on Thursday, adding, "That starts the conversation."
Strawn said he believed Iowans were "going to give Newt a fair opportunity to come in and talk about his solutions for fixing America."
Gingrich has made a particular effort in Iowa and other states to meet with evangelical pastors, hoping to overcome ambivalence among religious conservatives about his two divorces and win over a key Republican constituency.
The strategy is also an effort by Gingrich to pick up key backers of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist pastor who swept the Iowa caucus contest in 2008 on the strength of support from evangelical Christians. If Huckabee decides not to run again, Gingrich is hoping to claim a large share of his backers.
Already, some Huckabee supporters in Iowa have committed to Gingrich or expressed an interest in doing so. Will Rogers, the former Polk County Central Republican Committee chairman, said he was enthusiastic about Gingrich's message about innovation and lean government.
Pastor Brad Sherman, a Coralville, Iowa-based pastor who helped corral evangelical support for Huckabee in 2008, said he was open to backing Gingrich if Huckabee decided not to run. Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church, had lunch with Gingrich last fall.
"I wouldn't have any trouble supporting him if he became a candidate," Sherman said.
However, a new poll by the Barna Group, a private group that conducts research for Christian ministries, indicated that Gingrich still had work to do to win over many evangelical Christians. Although nearly nine out of 10 evangelicals around the country have a favorable view of Huckabee, Gingrich only garners a 57% favorable rating.
Gingrich has at least two trips coming up in Iowa; at both, he will speak to conservative Christian audiences. After speaking at the "Rediscovering God in America" event in Des Moines in late March, Gingrich is expected to travel to San Antonio, where he will speak at the Cornerstone Church, which has a congregation of 19,000.
While there, he is expected to meet with Cornerstone's sometimes-controversial senior pastor, John Hagee. In 2008, Hagee apologized for comments that were considered to be anti-Catholic. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism two years ago, has been reaching out actively to evangelical pastors for the last two years.