By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES (Reuters) - Republican Newt Gingrich, testing the waters for a possible presidential run in 2012, sought to explain on Saturday why he appeared to be for a U.S. military intervention in Libya before he was against it.
Before President Barack Obama backed the use of U.S. force to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, Gingrich had favored such a move, saying "this is a moment to get rid" of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But once Obama ordered the U.S. military into action, Gingrich declared, "I would not have intervened."
Policy flip-flops are a hallmark of American politics but Gingrich's ran the risk of complicating his attempts to show why Republican voters should view him as a more steadfast leader than a host of other Republicans considering a run to challenge Democrat Obama in 2012.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives, speaking at a conservative conference that attracted several other potential Republican presidential candidates, told the crowd "obviously there were contradictions" in his statements but that he had changed his analysis as a result of Obama changing his position.
"Now, I believe the only rational objective of the current intervention is to defeat Gaddafi as rapidly as possible," Gingrich said. "I would do it by using Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian, and Iraqi ground forces as advisers and as air controllers, with the rebels, using all of western air power as decisively as possible."
TEA PARTY FAVORITE
More than 500 Iowans gathered for the conference, an event staged to help Republican voters sort through a long list of potential candidates.
Iowa plans to hold the country's first presidential contest next January, and the state is among the stops candidates must make to generate enthusiasm.
Minnesota Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party conservative favorite who is believed to be leaning toward a run, criticized Obama on a wide range of issues, from the economy to Libya.
"Are you in for 2012?" she asked the crowd. "Are you in? Are you going to make it happen? Are we going to take our country back? I agree with you. I say we do. I'm in!"
Another Republican strongly considering a presidential race, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, used his speech to blast Obama and his aides as elitists who have hamstrung the economy.
"I wish we had some people in this administration who'd signed the front side of a paycheck in their lives," Barbour said to applause, "some people who understand it's the private sector that creates wealth."
Barbour criticized Obama for proposing an energy policy that he said would end up raising taxes on the oil industry.
"Who does he think is going to pay that? Exxon? That's going to be paid by the people who are pumping gas and diesel fuel into their cars and trucks," Barbour said.
A number of politicians considering a 2012 run including prominent conservative Sarah Palin did not appear at the event.
(Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Xavier Briand)