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Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was expected to launch a presidential exploratory committee today. Instead, it turned out to be something not quite that official. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Gingrich is stepping carefully to avoid getting too deep into a presidential bid too quickly.

PETER OVERBY: Gingrich has spent years traveling America, promoting conservative causes and candidates. So today, in Georgia, the state he used to represent in Congress, it seemed like the right time to announce something, and this was it.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Representative, Republican, Georgia): Because of our concern for the future of the country, our concern for our grandchildren and all of the children of this country who are faced with, I think, a very dramatic choice of which future we're going to have, we are today establishing a website: NewtExplore2012.com.

OVERBY: It's the digital-era version of what federal election law calls testing the waters: a website asking people to comment, also asking them for money.

Mr. GINGRICH: We will look at this very seriously, and we will very methodically lay out the framework of what we'll do next.

OVERBY: A big part of that methodical laying-out will involve Gingrich's existing framework, known in political circles as Newt Inc. There's Newt.org; the Gingrich Group; Gingrich Communications; Gingrich Productions; The American Solutions political action committee, which raised $736,000 in the 2010 election cycle; and especially American Solutions for Winning the Future, a so-called 527 political organization that in the 2010 cycle raised more than $28 million. That's more than any other GOP White House hopeful could round up.

But here's the rub: If Gingrich were to announce that he's a candidate, he'd have to walk away from American Solutions for the duration of the campaign. That's because millions of dollars came in unregulated contributions as big as a million dollars each.

The Federal Election Commission says that even as someone testing the waters, Gingrich can't use American Solutions money for water-testing activities such as meeting potential donors or traveling to primary states or even paying for the new website.

Jason Torchinsky is a campaign finance lawyer in Virginia.

Mr. JASON TORCHINSKY (Campaign Finance Lawyer): The concept behind it is you raise a little bit of money, and you run some polling that actually, you know, tests your name ID, tests some viability. And it allows you to kind of get a head start without having to sort of cross the Rubicon into being a formal, you know, FEC-recognized candidate.

OVERBY: By sticking his metaphorical toe in today, Gingrich steps out ahead of the other high-profile GOP possibilities. But some of them have been using their own non-candidate organizations to lay out the framework that they want.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for example, set up a political action committee not in Mississippi, not in Iowa or New Hampshire but in Georgia. Paul Ryan is a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center.

Mr. PAUL RYAN (Lawyer, Campaign Legal Center): Georgia has virtually no restrictions on money in politics. And he's using contributions from corporations that would be illegal under federal law to, for example, buy Republican party voter registration lists in Iowa.

OVERBY: But if that seems like a problem, Ryan says the Federal Election Commission probably won't think so. It has a history of leniency toward politicians who have an eye on the White House.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.

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