Key members of Republican Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign team resigned on Thursday in a devastating blow to his 2012 election hopes.
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Rick Tyler, who quit as Gingrich's spokesman, cited "a difference of opinion on how to move forward" as the reason he, campaign manager Rob Johnson, senior strategist Dave Carney and others left the campaign.
The mass exodus from Gingrich's campaign, which has sputtered from the beginning, could scare off would-be financial contributors and other supporters.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, considering a late entry into the 2012 contest, could benefit since Johnson and Carney are former Perry aides who left his side when he had earlier ruled out a race.
Gingrich said in a statement he is still a candidate.
"I am committed to running the substantive, solutions-oriented campaign I set out to run earlier this spring," he said. "The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles."
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The Republican race to find a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama has been slow to start and Republicans complain the candidates so far are not strong enough.
Obama retains a big lead over possible Republican rivals in the 2012 election despite anxiety about the economy and the country's future, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, faced questions about his commitment to the campaign. Shortly after launching his 2012 race last month, he went on a two-week vacation with his third wife, Callista.
Tyler, a longtime fixture at Gingrich's side, said there were questions about "mostly a time commitment," declining to comment further.
"We had two different visions of a path to victory," Tyler said.
The list of resigning officials included leaders of Gingrich's operations in the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina as well as Gingrich's home state of Georgia.
In a another blow, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who had been Gingrich's national campaign co-chairman, announced he had joined the presidential campaign of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
"Tim Pawlenty is a great man, he was a phenomenal governor, and he is the person I now believe stands the greatest chance of defeating President Obama," Perdue said.
TROUBLED FROM THE START
Gingrich launched his campaign in May and within days ran afoul of Republican leaders by criticizing Representative Paul Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare. Then it was disclosed he had carried as much as $500,000 in debt to jewelry company Tiffany from 2005 to 2006.
Gingrich was noticeably absent from a conference of the religious right last weekend at which several Republican presidential candidates spoke.
Most of his rivals have been scouring New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina for support in recent weeks.
Republican strategist Scott Reed said the staff exodus made this a tough time for Gingrich's campaign.
"It is time for Newt to find a soft landing -- he needs a Captain Sully on the Hudson River," said Reed, referring to the emergency landing in 2009 of a USAir flight in New York by pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
There was immediate speculation among Republicans that the moves by Johnson and Carney mean Perry could be serious in weighing whether to launch a 2012 Republican run.
Johnson and Carney were advisers to Perry before leaving for Gingrich under the belief Perry could not be wooed into the race.
Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told Reuters before the Gingrich developments came to light that "the only real question at this point is why wouldn't Rick Perry run?"
"There are a lot of physics around Rick Perry right now pulling him into the race, which I think will be hard to resist," McKinnon said.