ARLINGTON, Va. — Newt Gingrich finally ended his Republican presidential candidacy Wednesday, unbowed and with a backhanded endorsement of the party's presumptive nominee.
Flanked by members of his family at a suburban Virginia hotel, the former House speaker said he would work to elect Republicans at all levels this fall.
"As to the presidency, I'm asked sometimes, 'Is Mitt Romney conservative enough?' And my answer is simple: 'Compared to Barack Obama?' You know, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical, leftist president in American history," he said.
Technically, Gingrich "suspended" his candidacy, allowing him to turn his attention to retiring a campaign debt of more than $3 million. The announcement wasn't news, since he had said last month that he would be doing so, after running out of excuses to keep going. His second and last primary victory was almost two months ago, in his former home state of Georgia.
Gingrich choked up once, briefly, at the outset, when he recalled a familiar line about his grandchildren, Maggie and Robert, being his best debate coaches. The youngsters stood alongside him on a small stage before several dozen supporters and aides.
The 68-year-old former Georgia congressman called his campaign "a truly wild ride," adding, "I could never have predicted either the low points or the high points."
In a rare self-deprecating aside, he referred to his campaign vision of a human colony on the moon by remarking that his wife, Callista, who nodded affirmatively as he spoke, had pointed out to him "approximately 219 times, give or take three, that 'moon colony' was probably not my most clever comment in this campaign. I thought, frankly, that in my role of providing material for'Saturday Night Live,'it was helpful," Gingrich said.
"What I called for is beginning to happen," he went on to say, a reference to a recent, privately financed proposal to lasso an asteroid and mine it for minerals in outer space.
In classic Gingrich fashion, he began his farewell remarks by tracing his career in public life back to high school in the late 1950s. He also reprised many of the themes of his campaign and promised that, along with his wife, he would pursue them in the years ahead.
"We owe it to America," he said.
A pioneering practitioner of what became known as the politics of personal destruction, Gingrich rose to power in Washington with an unblinking and ceaseless war on the Democratic majority in Congress. He drove Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright from office, using ethics charges, and after engineering a historic GOP takeover of the House in the 1994 election, became speaker himself.
For a time, in 1995, his influence appeared to exceed that of President Clinton, with whom he worked to overhaul the welfare system. But Gingrich, always his own worst enemy, was forced to abandon the speakership after a poor showing by Republicans in the 1998 election, rather than risk being deposed by his disillusioned GOP colleagues.
Forced to put his ambitions on hold, he became wealthy by following a familiar path for former members of Congress: He peddled influence as a Washington consultant. He also produced books and movies for profit with his third wife, Callista, a former House aide with whom he was having an extramarital affair at the same time that he was pushing for Clinton's impeachment following theMonica S. Lewinskyscandal.
His critics have charged that Gingrich bears personal responsibility for the cycle of retribution that has made Congress increasingly dysfunctional over the last quarter-century. But in his swan song as a candidate, he again embraced reform.
"Congress has decayed dramatically in the last 20 years," he said. "In the long run, if Congress doesn't understand things and can't legislate things, you can't fix it."
He called the stalemate in Washington "a really big problem" that "may be too big a challenge even for somebody who used to be speaker of the House."