SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Newt Gingrich has been here before, very publicly dangling the prospect of a run for president. In the past, he's yanked it away in the end, like Lucy and her football in the "Peanuts" comic stip.
But this time could be different. Gingrich has said he's more inclined to run than not, and some longtime associates think he might. If so, he would bring an oversized personality and biting tongue to a crowded GOP debate stage.
It would also be further evidence that party professionals aren't just spouting platitudes when they describe the 2012 Republican race as unusually wide open.
This time, "the situation's objectively very different," Gingrich said in a brief interview after addressing 250 party activists Thursday night in South Carolina, an important early primary state. The next election will present Republicans with an opportunity to take on a president who, right now, looks beatable.
"The potential to launch a new generation of ideas and to draw a very dramatic contrast is much greater," Gingrich said. "You couldn't do that in the shadow of the (George W.) Bush presidency."
Or as the title of his new book puts it, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine."
Gingrich's camp sees another difference this time, after surveying the Republican field: a vacuum.
Many in the hierarchical GOP consider it Mitt Romney's turn to lead. But Romney does not seem nearly as formidable as most who've occupied the early front-runner spot in the last three decades — George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
The other potential leader of the Republican pack, supernova Sarah Palin, remains untested. And the rest of those maneuvering or getting mentioned, including Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Jim DeMint, Mike Pence, Ron Paul and Mitch Daniels, all have significant vulnerabilities.
So does Gingrich: His ability to command attention is proven, but his appeal as a presidential contender is not. Some Republican politicians call him easy to like but hard to love.
But if the warm response he drew as a potential candidate in South Carolina is any indication, he has found a message that resounds with party conservatives. They showed up in impressive numbers, at $60 a head and up, for a political event in the midst of the Christmas season.
Along with dinner, they got a taste of vintage Gingrich in the stump speech he road-tested campaigning for fellow Republicans this year. At a time of economic despair, he's promoting "a Republican Party of jobs and paychecks (to) replace a Democratic Party of bureaucracy and food stamps."
In characteristically grandiose terms, he blames the nation's ills on his longtime collection of villains. They include, in his words, the leftist news media, the Hollywood literati, tenured academics and overpaid federal workers.
To that list he has added millions of new culprits: ordinary Americans who would rather draw an unemployment check than find a job.
"I'm opposed to giving people money for doing nothing," he said to loud applause from the Carolina Republicans.
Comparing unemployment benefits to welfare, a system he worked with former President Bill Clinton to overhaul in the mid-1990s, Gingrich asserts that the country spent $134 billion last year on unemployment compensation "and got nothing for it." Instead of wasting money "paying people to do nothing for 99 weeks," he would make job training mandatory for anyone getting an unemployment check.
His attacks on the nation's elites and calls to "take this country back" from President Barack Obama and the Democrats echo Palin's. That may be one reason some rival strategists, eager to prevent her from consolidating support on the right, are talking up the prospect of a Gingrich candidacy.
But they aren't alone. Party professionals were impressed with the extent of his 2010 midterm election efforts. He traveled extensively to key states and donated to candidates through his political action committee. In the leadoff state of Iowa alone, he gave more than $100,000.
Gingrich appears to have strengthened his political operation, which gives him the potential to finance and organize a campaign, even as he expands a personal conglomerate of think tanks, grass-roots organizations and a film production company run by Callista Gingrich, a former congressional aide who became his third wife in 2000.
"I'm in a much different position in my own life," said Gingrich, who converted to his wife's Catholicism last year. They're about to promote their movie "Nine Days That Changed the World," about Pope John Paul II's 1979 return to Poland, in early primary states, he said.
He's also reached the stage in life where it looks like it's now or never for a White House try.
"I have the same challenge Reagan had," said Gingrich, who would be 69 in 2012. Reagan, the oldest man to become president, was 69 when he was elected in 1980.
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.