Washington: Former House speaker Newt Gingrich became the first major Republican candidate to formally throw his hat into the ring for the 2012 White House race, aiming to oust President Barack Obama.
Some 18 months before the next elections, Obama is enjoying a new rush of support -- despite the nation's slow economic recovery -- after ordering the raid which took out America's number one enemy, Osama bin Laden.
In 2008, when Obama made history and defeated Republican John McCain to be elected America's first black president, both the Democratic and Republican fields were already crowded with contenders at this stage of the race.
But this time round, the Republican camp has been slow to form with some of the top possible candidates such as McCain's vice-presidential candidate and darling of the conservative right, Sarah Palin, still to declare.
Jumping into the ring, Gingrich took to the Internet to declare the race for the Republican presidential nomination officially open.
"Today I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States," he said in a message on the micro-blogging social network Twitter.
Seizing on the voters' top concern, the stuttering economy, he said on a video posted on YouTube that he was running "because I believe we can return America to hope and opportunity, to full employment, to real security, to an American energy program, to balanced budget."
Obama, who succeeded president George W Bush, launched his own election bid last month, seeking a second four-year term in the White House. He is unlikely to face any serious challengers for the Democratic Party nomination.
In his message, Gingrich tried to hook his political career to the legacy of Republican icon, late president Ronald Reagan, whose presidency many conservatives see as a golden era for America.
"I worked with president Ronald Reagan in a very difficult period. We got jobs created again, Americans proud of America, and the Soviet Union disappeared," he said in the video message.
And he tried to gloss over the role he played in the bitter US political wars of the 1990s, when as speaker he triggered a government shutdown in 1995 during a standoff with then-president Bill Clinton over spending.
"As speaker of the House I worked to reform welfare, to balance the budget, to control spending, to cut taxes to create economic growth, employment came down from 5.6% under 4%," he said.
"For four years we balanced the budget and paid our USD 405 billion of debt. We've done it before we can do it again."
In a coincidence of history, Obama is embroiled in row with the current Republican-majority House, led by Speaker John Boehner, who has demanded trillions in spending cuts to rein in the nation's burgeoning debt.
Gingrich, 67, is widely regarded as the architect of the Republican rout of Democrats in the 1994 elections, when they retook the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades.
But the Republicans were then widely blamed for the government shutdown, after which Clinton coasted to victory and a rare Democratic presidential second term in 1996.
Gingrich is at least a well known figure on the US political scene. A Gallup poll released on Tuesday gave him a name recognition score of 84 percent.
Other Republicans however including former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota have left little doubt that they also plan to run in 2012.
Former Utah governor and US ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman, and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels are also expected to announce formally within weeks whether they will seek the White House.
And party insiders are watching Palin, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- who was the last one in the pack to be defeated for the Republican nomination by McCain in 2008 -- for signs whether they will run.
Apart from sometimes being seen as a divisive figure, Gingrich was also the first US speaker to face a formal ethics rebuke for making inaccurate statements to lawmakers looking into Democratic allegations of misconduct tied to misuse of tax-exempt donations.
His personal life could also draw fire -- he has admitted to cheating on his first wife with the woman who became his second wife, and then having an affair with the woman who is now his third wife, Callista Gingrich.
First Published: Thursday, May 12, 2011, 12:50