ST. PETE BEACH — Rick Perry recently told Parade magazine that "I don't have any idea" whether the birth certificate released by President Barack Obama is real. He told CNBC this week that Obama's citizenship "is a good issue to keep alive" and noted he had discussed the matter with Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, though, the Texas governor fighting for the Republican nomination for president clearly had had enough of the birther issue.
"I don't think I was expressing doubts. I was just having some fun with Donald Trump," Perry said in an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 for the Political Connections show airing Sunday. "It's fun to . . . you know, lighten up a little bit."
Pressed about Obama's citizenship, Perry was firm.
"I have no doubt about it," he said, adding, "but here's the more interesting thing. Let's lay out our income taxes. Let's lay out our college transcripts. Mine's been on the front page of the paper. So if we're going to lay out all these things, let's lay them all out."
The interview followed a $1,000-per-plate breakfast fundraiser at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach that drew about 50 people.
Perry, 61, is trying to revive a campaign that has seen its poll numbers plummet from the top of the pack toward the bottom over the last month after shaky debate performances and accusations of being too soft on illegal immigration in Texas.
"I hope that debates are not how people are going to decide the next president of the United States. We've got a great debater in the White House today and it's not working too well for us," Perry said Wednesday. "Who is it on the Republican side who actually has a record of getting people to work? I'm the only one on that stage who's got a record that is impeccable from the standpoint of taxes, regulations, legal system, and then understanding that government needs to get out of the way and let the private sector do what it does best and that is create jobs."
He called former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney "one slick debater" and "a smooth politician,'' but also a chronic flip-flopper on core issues.
"How do you go at age 50 — or 60, whatever his age when he had these changes of hearts — from being pro-abortion to being pro-life? From being for banning handguns to now supposedly a big supporter of the 2nd Amendment? From saying he's going to do more for gay rights . . . to now believing in traditional marriage?'' Perry said, calling himself a consistent fiscal and social conservative.
Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams responded: "Perry will do and say anything to distract from his floundering campaign, his plummeting poll numbers and his liberal record."
New CNN/Time polls show Romney leading in the four states voting first on the nomination — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — with Perry lagging well behind him and Herman Cain. The poll of registered Republicans in Florida found Romney with 30 percent support, Cain with 18 percent, and Newt Gingrich and Perry each with 9 percent.
In a proposal echoing Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan (9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax and 9 percent national sales tax), Perry this week proposed an optional 20 percent flat income tax. It would allow people to stick with the current tax code if they preferred, and it would maintain deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable deductions.
He called it far superior to Cain's proposal: "If you don't get rid of the IRS, if you don't get rid of the income tax, adding another tax source for the federal government is a nonstarter, and that's exactly what 9-9-9 does."
On other issues:
• A strong supporter of increased energy exploration, Perry said he would leave it to Florida to decide how close drilling should be allowed to its shores and how to regulate the industry. He's comfortable the industry knows how to avoid another Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and suggested federal regulations on drilling in recent years should be scaled back. "I would pull back all of those regulations that have gone into place since 2008, audit them, find out whether they're actually helpful from the standpoint of anything environmental or safety-wise and then check them for their cost," he said.
• Perry in the past has opposed removing Confederate flags and plaques from government buildings and supported creating "Confederate History Month." But Wednesday, for the first time he weighed in on a controversial proposal for a new license tag in Texas featuring the Confederate flag: He's opposed. "That's just a part of history that you don't need to scrape that wound again. It just doesn't need to happen."
• The governor, who once on a morning jog shot and killed an aggressive coyote with his laser-sighted .380 Ruger, declined to say whether he was packing heat while campaigning in Florida: "That's the reason they call it a concealed handgun license."