Perry's energy plan: Drill freely on federal lands
Texas Gov. Rick Perry dismissed questions about his religious beliefs, debate performances and lagging poll numbers as presidential campaign trail distractions that matter little to unemployed voters searching for jobs.
"I'm very confident that after all the distractions that the media will try to create, or however they get created, people care about having a job, having the dignity of a job, getting this country back working," the Republican presidential candidate said on Friday during an interview Downtown with the Tribune-Review.
Perry, 61, visited Pittsburgh to deliver his first major economic policy address at a steel mill in West Mifflin. Before the speech to 200 invited guests, he addressed controversies he has encountered since jumping into the race eight weeks ago.
An incident last week at the Values Voters Summit in Washington put Perry in a precarious spot as he tries to hold onto support from far-right, conservative voters and court more moderate Republicans. The Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas, who introduced Perry there, stirred religious tension by saying voters should choose Perry over Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, a religious group Jeffress called "a cult."
"All I can say is I disagree with what he said," Perry said of Jeffress. "People endorse me; I don't endorse everything that they say."
He acknowledged that a candidate's religion is among factors that influence voters: "There will be lot of little checks on everyone's ballot, if you will; religion may be one of them. But the economy is what we're focused on, and that's what the American people are really focused on."
At the Fox News-Google debate last month in Orlando, Fla., Stephen Hill, a soldier who is gay, asked via video from Iraq whether candidates would uphold the new policies for gay troops under the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Some audience members booed, and critics, including President Obama, said the candidates should have spoken out against the booing.
"You should never boo a young man or woman in the military who's defending our freedom," Perry told the Trib. "I think that's completely and absolutely disrespectful."
He said he would have kept "don't ask, don't tell" in place and thinks Obama was wrong to eliminate the policy "as a political tool" in wartime.
Two polls this week showed Perry trailing Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released on Thursday showed Cain and Romney tied for first place, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in third, and Perry in fourth. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Wednesday showed Cain leading Romney, 27 percent to 23 percent, and Perry placing third with 16 percent.
Perry said he's accustomed to running campaigns from behind. His record of leadership and job creation while leading Texas since 2000 appeals to voters, he said. In late 2009, polls showed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison with a double-digit lead over Perry in the gubernatorial primary race. He decisively defeated Hutchison and another candidate a few months later.
He does not plan to drop out of this race.
"This is just getting started," Perry said. "I haven't laid out a plan for job creation in this country until today, and I think I did that faster than any other candidate."
He did that at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant, discussing an energy plan that would open federal land and water to oil and natural gas drilling, ease pollution regulations and limit environmental lawsuit abuse. He believes the moves would establish up to 1.2 million jobs and advance the nation toward oil independence.
"We're standing atop the next American economic boom -- energy," Perry told the mix of U.S. Steel customers and workers. The employees had received an e-mail giving them the option to attend. Some of them continued to work during his speech.
Jim Burn, Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman, said Perry's plan would destroy the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate important regulations on drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale formation.
"It shows his lack of understanding of the Marcellus issue and how it affects Pennsylvanians, especially in light of the fact that all sides agree that there needs to be regulation," Burn said.
Perry is trying to keep voters from noticing that unemployment in Texas doubled under his watch, Burn added.
"Gov. Perry's energy policy isn't the way to win the future. It's straight out of the past, doubling down on finite resources, with no plan to promote innovation or to transition the nation to a clean energy economy," said Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman.
U.S. Steel employee Mick Shepler, 56, of Monessen, a registered Democrat who voted for Obama, said he likes some of Perry's policies. If he wins, Shepler hopes Perry can make good on promises to improve the economy.
"I'm worried about the future of the steel mill," Shepler said.