ATLANTA — As he winds down his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich faces a new challenge: reinventing himself politically yet again.
Gingrich reinvented the Republican Party in the House in 1994, leading the GOP to its first majority in 40 years and becoming speaker. Four years later, after Republicans pushed him out of House leadership and he resigned, he reinvented himself as a Republican elder focused on what he termed "big ideas" — health care, energy and space exploration — and as an able fundraiser for his political advocacy group.
What could follow a run for president that saw Gingrich leading at times in national opinion polls?
"I would think that this will be his last run for president," said Sue Everhart, chairwoman of Georgia's Republican Party, a state Gingrich represented in Congress and where he won one of his two primary victories. "There are plenty of other places that he could be helpful."
Several other Republican leaders said they expected this race to be Gingrich's last for the presidency. He had contemplated a run in 2008 but eventually decided against it. However, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said it was too early to discuss what Gingrich might do in the future.
"Politics is one of those funny businesses where people end up deciding at the end, not the pundits," Hammond said. "Newt Gingrich has spent his entire career proving pundits wrong. I'm sure he'll be happy to do so again."
A second campaign could prove even more daunting, especially when potential supporters compare his shaky campaign performance with the advantages he enjoyed at the beginning — national political experience, fundraising clout and a deep network of political contacts.
Gingrich needed to court social conservatives but was weighed down with baggage that includes three marriages and an acknowledgement of infidelity. He had been reprimanded by Congress after an ethics probe. A consummate insider, he tried to run as an anti-establishment candidate.
The campaign was rocky from the start. After a confusing is-he-in-or-not campaign announcement, Gingrich went on national TV and criticized Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal, which was popular among the party's conservative base. Not long after, many of Gingrich's top campaign staffers quit over disagreements on strategy and finances, a period that Gingrich later described as "painful."
And yet the former Georgia congressman bounced back with the help of strong debate performances, winning the South Carolina primary and Georgia's a few weeks later. He hoped to win other states in the Deep South, but it never happened. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew away conservative support and front-runner Mitt Romney continued to rack up victories.
On Wednesday, the day he acknowledged his campaign was nearly over, Gingrich kept his campaign appearances in North Carolina. Among those attending the events was Mike Anderson, who said Gingrich was smart to drop out.
"Was Newt the best candidate? Yes. Would he have won? Yes," said Anderson, 47. "I'm not a Romney fan .... but I know he's better than the alternative."
Several GOP strategists and leaders suggested that Gingrich could still play a political role by reviving organizations he previously led that fought President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and raised millions of dollars for conservative causes. He also could return to his work as a commentator for conservative media outlets or perhaps accept a post in a Republican administration.
Politicians have made comebacks after suffering big losses before. In perhaps the most famous example, Republican Richard Nixon lost the race for president in 1960 and was defeated in his bid for California governor two years later.
"You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore," a bitter Nixon famously told reporters during what he called his last news conference. It wasn't. Six years later, Nixon was elected president.
A major difference: Nixon turned 55 during the 1968 campaign. In 2016, Gingrich would turn 73.
Tom Perdue, a Republican strategist in Georgia, has long been skeptical of Gingrich's candidacy and believes Gingrich is effectively finished in politics.
"I sure don't see how he could be a contender for anything in the future," Perdue said.
Dan Schnur, the communications director for Republican John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, said Gingrich has improved his popularity ratings compared with when he was forced out as House speaker. Gingrich should have left the race a month ago, Schnur said, when he could have exited on a better note.
"A string of fourth-place finishes tends to take the shine off," said Schnur. Still, he cautioned against writing off Gingrich from the political scene.
"Each time," Schnur said, "he's managed to climb back."
Associated Press reporter Mitch Weiss in Kings Mountain, N.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Ray Henry at http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP