By DAVID BAUDER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 5:52 PM
NEW YORK -- Fox News Channel on Wednesday suspended the contracts of on-air contributors Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for two months as the men explore a possible White House run.
The network, in an on-air announcement by Bret Baier, said Gingrich and Santorum would be dropped by Fox entirely on May 1 unless they notify the network by then that they are not running for president.
As the top-rated news network and one with a big Republican audience, Fox is expected to be a big player in the contest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Some critics have suggested that frequent exposure on Fox is a big advantage for Republicans seeking the White House.
Baier said the status change "had been contemplated from the start, from the very beginning." He said the step "does not preclude other announcements that may be made in the future."
Anchor Jenna Lee said that "it's not a suspension like grade school, for example, for getting into trouble. We just want to make that clear."
Neither Gingrich, the former House speaker, nor former U.S. Sen. Santorum of Pennsylvania has officially taken the steps to begin a presidential campaign, but neither has shied from the attention.
On Thursday, Gingrich is set to meet with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Gingrich supporter. Gingrich plans to meet with reporters after the meeting, which Gingrich aides described as a long-standing chat about policy and insisted would not be to announce a White House run.
Yet Gingrich attorney Randy Evans has said the former House speaker will form an exploratory committee in the coming days and expects he will do so in Georgia, which he represented in the U.S. House. Those statements have fanned suspicion that Gingrich was ready to signal he would start a White House run - the first serious candidate to make clear his intentions.
Santorum, who lost his Senate seat in a brutal 2006 election, also has taken steps to put together the early shell of a campaign. He picked up veteran New Hampshire strategist Mike Biundo and hired consultant and radio personality Seth Leibsohn as his policy chief.
He has visited the early nominating states, talking up his record and discussing what a presidential run might look like. His organization has all the signs of a presidential bid, yet the formal paperwork to file an exploratory committee isn't signed and he remains chairman of his political action committee.
The liberal watchdog Media Matters for America has likened airtime for these politician-commentators to free campaign contributions. Media Matters said Gingrich had received almost 12 hours on the air in 2010 and Santorum had received about six hours.
Santorum, in an interview last year with National Review Online, said his Fox platform has been "big. It has helped folks remember who I am." But he also said the punditry meant he'd have to talk about issues he'd rather dodge.
Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's first White House press secretary, downplayed the importance of a punditry platform. He said it was a "moderately lucrative placeholder for several years in between races" with some visibility. Serious candidates need to communicate in many different places, he said.
"I'm old-fashioned: If you're good, you don't need a TV platform to launch," he said. "If they're not good candidates, it doesn't matter if they have a platform. They'll fizzle."
Television roles aren't new for dormant politicians. Republican Pat Buchanan twice left CNN, where he was a "Crossfire" host, to run for president.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.