ST. PETERSBURG — Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday he likes everything about President Barack Obama's plan to open up 24 million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling — except for the timing.
"If he's going to announce he's for drilling, he should announce that we're drilling now," said Gingrich, who titled one of his books Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.
Gingrich contended that Obama's plan only promises to allow drilling years from now as an attempt to persuade Congress to pass a climate change bill. That won't fly with the American people, who want more jobs and a better economy right away, he said.
"I don't think the people want a party of manana," Gingrich said.
The one-time Georgia representative, who now lives in Virginia, said he foresees increased offshore drilling — as well as more nuclear plants and "clean coal" plants providing power — as a way not only to revive the economy but also to start knocking down a raging federal deficit.
"Your children are going to spend the rest of their lives paying the interest on our national debt to the Saudis and the Chinese," Gingrich warned.
Gingrich held a town hall meeting at St. Petersburg's Vinoy Renaissance hotel Wednesday evening to tout his ideas for creating more jobs. Organizers estimated he drew 800 people, including St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who introduced him, and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach.
Meanwhile a protest against offshore drilling drew what organizers estimated to be a crowd of 300, who lined the sidewalk across the street from the Vinoy and chanted, "Save our coasts!" Among the protesters was Pamela Hewitt, 46, of Tampa, who drenched herself in Hershey's chocolate sauce to symbolize what an oil spill would look like.
Also in the crowd of protesters outside the Vinoy was Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "It's a vital issue for our county," said Welch, who said he was more concerned about whether the Legislature would allow drilling 5 miles offshore than about the president's plan.
Inside the Vinoy, Gingrich also drew a handful of protesters who disrupted his speech with a chant about 9-11 being an inside job before they were escorted out by police. The rest of the crowd seemed firmly on his side, however, cheering one questioner who wanted to know if he would run for president. Gingrich said he would make a decision in February.
Gingrich has remained busy since leaving Congress, writing 20 books, producing films about Ronald Reagan and other topics, and setting up groups such as American Solutions, the sponsor of his talk. He spent part of Wednesday meeting with small business leaders, he told reporters prior to his speech.
At one point, talking to the gaggle of reporters, Gingrich slipped and referred to his book as "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Later — er, I mean Pay Less." He also called for making English the country's official language, doing a better job of guarding the borders against illegal immigrants and cutting the funding for Internal Revenue Service agents.