WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich may be running for the Republican presidential nomination. Or maybe he is just running all the way to the bank.
The wonkish former House speaker and unofficial Republican pundit in chief is tossing around provocative commentary and juicy hints about running for president, making sure he's in the mix as his party begins sorting out its field for the 2012 election.
It appears to be working, extending a remarkable staying power that has made Gingrich an A-list fixture on the Republican scene more than a decade after he resigned from office amid political setbacks. It's also made him rich, with a sprawling empire of commercial and nonprofit ventures that often intersect, blurring the boundaries of his public and private roles.
EDITOR'S NOTE – An occasional look at how Washington works behind the scenes.
Gingrich, who stepped down as speaker at the relatively young age of 55, is certainly not the first to cash in on a political career. But he has blazed a path unlike any other, essentially taking on the role of a politician without the hassles of holding office.
He writes books such as "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine." He's selling $99 replicas of his wooden speaker's gavel and $150 wall charts mapping the bureaucracies of the Democratic health care bill.
He runs a communications firm, a production company and a handful of advocacy groups. He makes documentaries and self-improvement videos, commands fees of at least $40,000 per speech and provides paid commentary on Fox News – often cross-promoting his projects through various media.
As controversy erupted over building a New York City mosque and community center near ground zero, for example, Gingrich provocatively compared the proposal to putting a Nazi sign next to a holocaust museum. One of his advocacy groups, Renewing American Leadership, was simultaneously circulating a fundraising pitch urging donors to send money to stop the Islamic center.
"As one who holds your freedoms dearly, I know I can count on you," he wrote.
Gingrich also has frequently promoted policies backed by companies that underwrite his ventures, such as pushing for expanded oil drilling while taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from energy companies.
His personal website, newt.org, offers a shopping bonanza. Besides viewing replica gavels, visitors can browse dozens of books, CDs and videos. He has teamed up with his wife, Callista, on titles such as "Rediscovering God in America" and "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny."
Gingrich, 67, declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman, Rick Tyler, said Gingrich could have made more money in a behind-the-scenes role such as lobbying but stays involved in policy because he's "driven to serve."
Gingrich "believes civilizations can collapse, and he feels duty-bound to ensure that America remains safe, prosperous and free," Tyler said.
Granted, plenty of former politicians try to do that in a less profitable way – writing the occasional book to spread their message, for example, or helping raise money for like-minded candidates.
Tyler called it "a blessing that Newt is able to live in a country where he can make a living while at the same time fighting for public policy and serving his country."
That sentiment is echoed by Gingrich's friends and supporters, who say the former speaker has politics in his blood.
As Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., put it, Gingrich is having "his pulpit and his paycheck" by taking an entrepreneurial path – true to his nature.
"He's certainly entitled to go home and sit around with the grandchildren, but I don't think he's capable of doing that," said Kingston, who served alongside Gingrich in Georgia's congressional delegation in the 1990s. "Newt's a workaholic. He doesn't tire from this stuff."
It's unclear just how much Gingrich, born in a middle-class military family, earns from his ventures. Tyler declined to say, but Gingrich in 2008 described his annual income as in the seven figures.
He also enjoys perks befitting a corporate CEO.
His flagship political operation, a tax-exempt conservative group called American Solutions for Winning the Future, has spent at least $2.2 million over the past two years on private jets and executive chauffeur services.
Overall, the group has spent nearly all of the $20 million it has raised over that period on administrative and travel expenses.
Tyler said the group has been effective in spreading a conservative message and has built a network of more than a million supporters, in part due to Gingrich's grueling travel schedule.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the spending pattern is a "very good indication of a kind of self-promotion engine," adding that it will be ripe for scrutiny if Gingrich jumps back into politics.
Tyler declined to say which way Gingrich is leaning on the 2012 race.
Some of Gingrich's associates say he sees an opportunity to highlight the differences between the two parties and is seriously considering a campaign. Others say it will be difficult for Gingrich to return to politics – he quit after the GOP suffered heavy losses in the 1998 election. Instead, they think he is positioning himself as his generation's leading conservative thinker.
"I think he's slowly inheriting the mantle of someone like William F. Buckley," the late conservative author, said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University who has watched Gingrich travel the state's presidential proving grounds.
"Newt really thinks of himself as a political intellectual. More than just politics, it's philosophy and the direction of the Republican Party," Schmidt said. "I think he just likes it, and if it helps his enterprises, I'm sure he's fine with that, too."