EDITOR'S NOTE: Former U.S. Speaker of the House and possible Republican 2012 presidential contender Newt Gingrich is traveling to the Lowcountry today. Reporter Robert Behre talked with him by phone Thursday about his trip and his future.

P&C: What do you hope to get done during your trip to Charleston?

Gingrich: "The most important thing is I want to sit down and talk with your new congressman, Tim Scott. He's got a great future. I think he can play a major role in helping to solve problems, particularly in education and in rethinking how the government creates opportunities."

P&C: You realize, with South Carolina being an early primary state, this will do nothing to tamp down expectations that you're going to run for president.

Gingrich: "I think that's probably an accurate way to put it (laughs). I'll tell you as directly as I know how: We have not made a decision. ... By early March you'll know whether I'm going to be a candidate. I can't move any faster than that."

P&C: If the economy continues to improve, and if the Republicans in Congress force President Barack Obama to tack back toward the center, won't it be difficult to defeat Obama in two years?

Gingrich: "Sure. Anytime you plan to take on an incumbent, the power of the presidency is so enormous and the central psychological importance of the president is so enormous, you have to assume it's a real challenge. ... It's not going to be easy to win the nomination. It's not going to be easy to win the general election."

P&C: Was the House's vote yesterday to repeal the health care reform bill a productive use of time, given the realities of its chances in the Senate and White House?

Gingrich: "When we first said we're going to balance the budget in April 1995, the president and elites all said it can't be done. ... That was a dialogue about what was realistic in which the Clinton White House changed its view very dramatically. ... (The health care law) turns medicine from consulting your doctor to consulting your lobbyist."

P&C: What lesson did you learn after becoming speaker in 1995 that would be most applicable today to House Republicans now enjoying their new status as the majority party?

Gingrich: "To keep your word. To make sure the people who elected you know you're serious and to be prepared to be cheerfully persistent through a long, difficult negotiation."

P&C: What do you think can be realistically accomplished in the next two years in Washington given the political layout of the House, Senate and White House?

Gingrich: "I think that they can cut spending significantly. I think they can reform some parts of the government. It partly depends on whether Obama is serious about trying to come to the center. ... I don't think we know yet."

P&C: Speaking of cutting spending, how do you think Congress can cut entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?

Gingrich: "I'll give you two sets of numbers I find unimaginable. American Express averages between .03 and .04 of 1 percent in fraud. ... New York State Medicaid is over 10 percent fraud. That means the federal government is such a bad administrator that it pays over 300 times the share of Medicaid to crooks that American Express would tolerate. ... You could save between $70 billion and $120 billion a year."

P&C: You said recently that Sarah Palin has got to slow down and be more careful and think through what she's saying and how she's saying it. Do you think she will heed that advice?

Gingrich: "Frankly, the advice I gave (her) on 'Good Morning America' is advice that at times I should take myself. I don't think anybody should see it as being negative. She has been the subject of a very unfair and very, I believe, factually wrong effort to define her that started immediately after the Tucson shootings."

P&C: If you were to run for president, what do you think would most set you apart from the potential Republican field?

Gingrich: "We are interested in communicating hope and opportunity in a citizen-based model using dramatic new ideas and dramatic new breakthroughs in a way I don't think anybody in either party has developed. ... Second, the American people want a balanced budget. I am the only Speaker of the House in your lifetime to have successfully balanced the federal budget."

P&C: What part of the 1994 Contract with America do you most regret not getting done?

Gingrich: "I think in retrospect, we should have gone back and fought harder to pass the balanced budget amendment. We went on to balance the budget, which was a remarkable achievement that no one expected, but I think in retrospect, we needed to put the government in a straight jacket of having a balanced budget, and we failed to do so."