By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich on Thursday edged toward becoming the first senior Republican to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
Gingrich, known for budget battles with President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, said he would explore a bid for the Republican nomination in the weeks ahead.
"We are excited about exploring whether there is sufficient support for my potential candidacy for president of this exceptional country," Gingrich and his wife, Callista, said on newtexplore2012.com.
He stopped short of announcing a formal presidential exploratory committee that would essentially make him a candidate. This gives him more time to work out his business interests before becoming a formal candidate.
Gingrich's tiptoe closer to a race reflected the slow pace of the Republican campaign to decide who will challenge Obama in 2012. No prominent Republican has yet made the plunge, although several are close to announcements.
Gingrich, 67, led the Republican "revolution" that took control of the House in 1994 elections and he was House speaker from 1995 to 1999.
He is now chairman of American Solutions, a group that advances conservative causes, and has been traveling frequently to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to test the waters.
Fox News on Wednesday suspended Gingrich from his role as a paid analyst, along with former Senator Rick Santorum, because the two have been gauging the possibility of seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Obama next year.
No major Republican candidates have declared for the 2012 race yet, although a longshot is expected to jump in on Thursday.
Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer plans to hold a news conference on Thursday in Baton Rouge at the bank where he is president, Business First Bank, to announce a presidential exploratory committee.
(Writing by Steve Holland, editing by Anthony Boadle)