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A statement released by Newt Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler late Tuesday night raised more questions than it answered when it denied widespread reports that the former House speaker would announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee on Thursday in Georgia.

Still, even if there is no announcement Thursday, the former House speaker appears poised to become the first major Republican candidate to make a formal move into the 2012 race.

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His announcement, if and when it comes, will mark the end of the preliminary stage of the 2012 cycle, which has seen potential candidates traveling to early voting states and eyeing each other cautiously, while not yet officially launching their campaigns.

Several other serious contenders for the Republican nomination still appear to be weeks, if not months, away from making their own decisions. The wide open nature of the 2012 race has led many candidates to believe that there is little to be gained from opening themselves up to attacks from their rivals and burning through precious financial resources almost a year before the first votes are cast.

But Gingrich’s early entry into the race would carry with it some clear and potentially significant benefits for the former Georgia congressman, who is widely considered one of the GOP’s intellectual heavyweights.

Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, suggested that Gingrich would be wise to jump in now and seize the political treasures that might be gained from being the most aggressive contender.

“Being the first candidate to announce carries with it a great opportunity to generate a lot of buzz with your entrance,” Albrecht said. “It effectively means the staring match is over, and somebody blinked.”

Now that a major candidate appears ready to enter the race and begin to more actively seek out the services of aides and activists in Iowa, Albrecht said that his would-be rivals might not want to cede additional ground.

This dynamic could create a domino effect, in which other contenders formally enter the race more quickly than they might have wanted.

“This is still Iowa, and while some could be tempted to rely on media stories and paid advertising, someone like Newt understands grassroots politics and will work very actively to recruit precinct captains beginning on day one,” Albrecht said.

Widely expected to be a brief stepping stone on the way to the launch of an official campaign, Gingrich aides would not yet confirm the exploratory committee’s launch date, which previous reports have indicated is imminent.

A Gingrich spokesperson did confirm that the former speaker would on Thursday be in Georgia – where he served in Congress for 20 years – to meet with the state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal. Gingrich and Deal are also set to hold an afternoon press conference.

If Gingrich’s announcement does still come sometime within the next few days, recent precedent from the earliest entrants to the last presidential campaign may be less than encouraging for the former speaker.

When former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack made his White House campaign official in November of 2006, he became the first serious Democratic candidate to throw his hat in the ring. Less than three months later, however, Vilsack also became the first contender to leave the race, citing a lack of adequate fundraising capability.

On the Republican side, then Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback became the first major GOP candidate to officially announce his run in December of 2006. But Brownback lost steam after a disappointing third-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll in August of 2007 and dropped out less than three months later.

Robert Haus, an Iowa Republican consultant currently unaligned with a prospective candidate, said that Gingrich differs from previous first entrants like Vilsack and Brownback because the former speaker is a national figure and already has in place a vibrant fundraising operation.

“I think there are clear advantages to being first,” Haus said. “The great thing about caucuses is that they’re pure numbers games. You’ve got to identify your supporters and turn them out, so the sooner you start, that gives you more time to do it.”

Gingrich is set to travel to the first-in-the-nation caucus state on Monday where he will speak at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is slated to be the first Iowa event of the cycle featuring multiple likely presidential candidates.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain – a longshot candidate who was the first to form an exploratory committee – will also speak at the event.

But in light of his impending announcement, Gingrich appears poised to generate the lion’s share of media attention at the forum – another reason why his entrance into the race could end up paying some early dividends – Although the confusion that was apparently perpetrated within his political team on Tuesday could raise concern about his operation’s organization.

If Gingrich does indeed take the plunge, his every utterance will be parsed even more extensively than it was before.

And as someone who has a reputation for generating controversy though off-the-cuff comments, the former speaker will have to be more careful than ever in avoiding self-inflicted wounds as he transitions from the contemplative stage to an active campaign.

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