WASHINGTON - Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, on the eve of suspending his roller coaster presidential bid, said in an interview with USA TODAY that he will embrace Mitt Romney's candidacy Wednesday and is ready to campaign for his former rival's election.
The two men will make a joint appearance in a few weeks, when Gingrich will make an official endorsement. The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee have offered to be helpful as Gingrich works to retire his campaign debt.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Gingrich said he had no regrets about his decision to run for president, though he added, "I have regrets about not being smarter about how to run."
He wished he had started out with a "bolder" campaign that eschewed consultants and focused on big ideas such as brain research and energy independence, he said. With "more discipline and more courage to be more outside the mainstream, it might have worked better."
Still, he had only praise for the opponent he once derided as not conservative enough.
"Mitt Romney met the first criteria of being a good candidate: He won," Gingrich said. "Now, you have to respect that." He added, "We sure didn't give it to him. We did everything we could to slug it out with him, and he ended up being tough enough and being good enough at raising money" to prevail.
Gingrich surged to the top of the Gallup and other national polls for the Republican nomination in January only to face millions of dollars in attack ads from the Romney campaign and its super PAC ally, Restore Our Future. He ended up winning the primaries in South Carolina and in Georgia, the state he had represented in Congress.
As of March 31, his campaign was $4.3 million in debt, though spokesman R.C. Hammond said $500,000 of that has now been paid off. Gingrich is slated to announce he is suspending his campaign Wednesday at a hotel in Northern Virginia.
Asked what lessons he learned, Gingrich teared up as he related a story about his wife, Callista, and her encounter with a boy who escorted her during a visit to a grade school in Charlotte. As she was leaving, she learned that he was homeless. "What hit me - that's where the phrase 'We can do better' comes from," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said he doubts he'll ever make another bid for president.
"I'm already 68 years old," he said. "My honest analysis: I believe Mitt Romney will become president; I believe he will do well enough to be re-elected, and I do not think in 2020 I'll be a plausible candidate."