In opinion surveys of Republican voters, Gingrich ranks near the top among prospective candidates. But at this stage, poll numbers tend to reflect little more than name identification, not the chances of getting nominated or elected.
Frequent appearances on Fox News — he dashed out of the party event in Spartanburg for a live shot on Sean Hannity's program — have helped preserve his appeal to conservatives like Richard Marzec, who likes what Gingrich has to say and thinks he can win.
"We need to get the country working and stop putting people on the dole," said the 72-year-old retiree, who drove 90 minutes from his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to hear Gingrich. He did so despite Gingrich's support for the recently approved bipartisan tax deal, which Marzec opposed because it included an extension of jobless benefits.
The last time Gingrich talked about running for president — before opting out a few months before the 2008 primaries — he was candid enough to acknowledge that being seen as "potentially available" for a presidential campaign is a reliable way to get media attention.
This time, he said, becoming a candidate wouldn't be about selling more books, getting coverage of his speeches or promoting his ideas in the fast-expanding calendar of primary debates, including several scheduled over the next six months.
"I would never run unless I thought I could win," he said. "If we decide to do this, it'll be because we think it's real."
Gingrich led the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and, as speaker, achieved a rare degree of celebrity for a legislator. He wound up quitting the House after Republicans were set back in the 1998 midterm election.
Gingrich said he'll discuss a 2012 run with his extended family at the American Club resort in Wisconsin near Lake Michigan over New Year's, right before launching a January swing through early primary states.
He'll make a public announcement of his decision, he said, "by the end of February, probably."