House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia stepped out of the 1996 presidential derby Monday, settling one of the last remaining questions about the Republican field for the 1996 presidential campaign.
Three weeks after retired Gen. Colin Powell declined to seek the GOP nomination, Gingrich said that his duties on Capitol Hill - and the realities of the political calendar - dissuaded him from making a run against President Clinton.
“I agree with my family and many constituents that my work as speaker of the House is more important at this time as we work on balancing the budget,” the speaker told a news conference in Marietta, Ga.
Gingrich’s decision would seem to leave a top tier of White House aspirants, led by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, with the presidential primary season less than four months away.
Six other GOP candidates have declared and one, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has already left the race.
Gingrich said his focus would continue to be the protracted battle over the GOP’s seven-year balanced budget plan, which Clinton is expected to veto in the coming days.
“I see the struggle we’re in over the next three, four, five, six weeks … as really one of the most important decisions we’ve made in domestic government in the last 60 years,” Gingrich said.
Since becoming the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years last January, Gingrich has all but set the nation’s political agenda.
But recent polls show a growing number of Americans hold a dim view of the speaker. And, his combative image was not helped by his recent complaints about his treatment aboard Air Force One en route to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Looking toward 1996, the speaker said it was “even money” his party would win the White House, and he suggested there could be a five-way contest, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot and a “moderate Democrat” joining the Republican nominee in challenging Clinton.
“You could have the wildest presidential campaign we’ve seen in a long time,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich declined to endorse any of his GOP colleagues, noting that he expected to be named chairman of the GOP nominating convention a traditional role for the speaker - and would thus maintain public neutrality.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Dole, won the endorsement of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Thompson, who is chairman of the National Governors’ Association, toyed with a presidential bid of his own, and is among those often mentioned for the vice-presidential nomination.
Dole now has the backing of 16 of the nation’s 31 GOP governors.