WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich doesn't do coy.
When the former House speaker and Republican flamethrower addresses South Carolina business leaders Thursday night, he readily acknowledges the state's historic importance in backing GOP presidential nominees — and his interest in becoming a White House candidate.
"South Carolina has picked the last five Republican presidential nominees," Gingrich told McClatchy. "So it's clear that along with Iowa and New Hampshire, it's a key state in the presidential nominating process. There's no question it will retain that importance in 2012."
Gingrich, who spent two decades in Congress representing neighboring Georgia, said he's nearing a decision that many analysts believe will see him toss his hat in the ring for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama next year.
"I'm looking at making a decision by the end of February," Gingrich said. "I'm trying to methodically see if it's possible and if there's enough support to make sense out of it."
Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, is puzzled why Gingrich — or any other GOP hopeful — hasn't already announced a White House run.
At the same point in the last presidential cycle, Dawson recalled, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other Republican hopefuls campaigned in South Carolina far more than a year before its Jan. 19, 2008, primary, won by McCain.
"I think it's extremely late," Dawson said. "The tentativeness of the (2012) campaign certainly is going to have to end soon."
Gingrich presents himself as a proven national leader — as the first Republican House speaker in four decades after the 1994 elections — who tackled tough problems such as a welfare overhaul and ballooning deficits.
"If you want to balance the federal budget, I know how to do it because we did it for four straight years and paid off $405 billion in debt," Gingrich said.
Gingrich is inextricably linked in with President Bill Clinton — over the late 1995 government shutdowns, the 1998 House impeachment of Clinton and numerous other clashes between them.
Yet the two men made compromises in changes to welfare, deficit reductions, anti-crime programs and other significant legislation for which each would later take the lion's share of credit.
"In our system, you can't get major reforms without the president and Congress sharing the credit," Gingrich said Tuesday. "When you have split government, the two parties must learn to work together or nothing gets done."
In a 2007 interview with James Dobson, the founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family, Gingrich admitted that he was having an extramarital affair when he led the impeachment drive over Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"There's certainly times when I've fallen short of God's standards," Gingrich said then.
Gingrich later married his mistress, former congressional aide Callista Bisek, who remains his third wife.
Gingrich abruptly resigned from Congress in November 1998 after Republicans lost four House seats in the election, six weeks before Clinton's impeachment. His surprise move also followed an ethics probe in which he was cleared of the original charge but was reprimanded for having submitted false information during the investigation.
Cory Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor, said a Gingrich presidential run might be hampered by resistance to his two divorces among the social conservatives who dominate Republican primaries in Iowa, South Carolina and other early nominating states.
"He's never run for national office, so he hasn't gone through the scrutiny that Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee have gone through," when they ran in 2008, Covington said. "He has quite a few skeletons in his closet that opponents might be able to exploit."
A McClatchy-Marist poll in November showed Gingrich fourth among possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In a more recent Gallup poll, Gingrich, Romney and Palin were essentially tied for second behind Huckabee.
After leaving Congress, Gingrich became a Fox News commentator and founded American Solutions, a Washington policy organization focused on the economy, energy and education.
Gingrich also has written or co-authored a number of books, among them several historical novels and a new tract called "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine."
Sounding much like a man who's already running against the president, Gingrich said his branding of Obama as a socialist is more than merely a rhetorical flourish.
"It's pretty clear that President Obama believes that your money is his money, and that he has the right to decide how much you keep," Gingrich said. "He believes that government is smarter than almost anything in the private sector. He believes in a huge centralized bureaucracy."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington