MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Gov. Rick Perry is promising to reinstate the ban on gays serving openly in the military if he’s elected president, but he’s not sure yet what to do with the ones who have already come out of the closet.
This summer, President Obama certified that the U.S. military was ready to end its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which had been in effect since 1993. Congress passed a law late last year overturning the policy, and it officially ended on Sept. 20.
At a press conference aboard the decommissioned USS Yorktown near Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, Perry again scolded Obama for pushing the new policy through Congress.
“Our president made a huge error when he changed the policy, particularly in the middle of the war, in two different theaters of war, basically using our military as a political tool to advance his base’s position,” Perry told reporters.
The lifting of “don’t ask, don’t tell” sparked celebrations among gay soldiers, and some have since married their partners. But it’s not clear how many gay and lesbian members of the U.S. Armed Forces are serving openly. A gay rights policy center, the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law, estimated before “don’t ask, don’t tell” ended that there were 66,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual members serving in the American military.
At the press conference, Perry at first did not directly answer a question regarding what he’d do about gays who are serving openly now. But when pressed, Perry said he would take the matter under advisement.
“I think you go back and you have that conversation with the civilian and the military leaders on how you want to deal with them,” the governor said.
Perry is using the gay-soldier issue to court evangelical voters in places like Iowa and South Carolina, where he needs to perform well to keep any hope alive for his struggling presidential campaign.
In a controversial new ad, Perry says there is “something wrong” with a nation that allows gays to serve openly in the military but doesn’t allow school children to openly celebrate Christmas. According to a Huffington Post story published Thursday, the ad sparked bitter divisions at the top of the Perry campaign.
Perry is running far behind newly minted front-runner Newt Gingrich, who has rocketed to the top of opinion polls in the wake of Herman Cain’s collapse and recent withdrawal from the race.
The campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is now trying to stop Gingrich with new coordinated attacks on the former U.S. House speaker, questioning his conservative credentials.
Perry was asked about the war going on above him Thursday.
“I’ll let both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich run their campaign,” Perry said. “I’ll let those two get in the ring and go at it. I’ll be out campaigning, shaking hands and asking people to support me.”
But Perry appeared to take a subtle dig at the thrice-married Gingrich, who has been dogged by media accounts of his extramarital affairs.
“I didn’t make an oath just to my wife; I made an oath to God when I married my wife,” Perry said. “ So yeah, I think it’s an important issue.”
Perry is on a one-day swing through South Carolina, which holds the first southern primary on Jan. 21. He will debate his rivals at the nationally televised ABC debate on Saturday and plans to spend the rest of December focusing on Iowa, which holds the first caucuses on Jan. 3.