PEARL, Miss. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's running for president, is picking a fight with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is not.
Struggling to steady his bid for the GOP nomination, Perry this week launched an outsider's campaign against Washington culture and challenged Pelosi, ousted last year from the House speakership, to debate his plan to overhaul Congress.
She declined Thursday, becoming the latest congressional Democrat to mock Perry for the 54-second debate pause that launched a thousand jokes — some from Perry himself — during which the Texas governor couldn't recall the third of three government agencies he wants to eliminate.
"Monday I'm going to be in Portland in the morning. I'm going to be visiting some of our labs in California in the afternoon. That's two," Pelosi told reporters. "I can't remember what the third thing is I'm going to be doing."
Very funny, Perry suggested during a stop Jackson-Evers International Airport. Then he launched into Pelosi with a stream of accusations that echoed Republican attacks on her during the 2010 elections as the face of government overreach on health care, the economy and more.
"She may have forgotten all the reasons she can't debate me on overhauling Washington, D.C., but the American people sure haven't forgotten the reasons we need to overhaul Washington," Perry said. "When you have routine insider corruption on Capitol Hill, when you have liberal opposition for freeing the economy of this country, when you have just total disrespect for family values, I would suggest to you that's the reason Nancy Pelosi is running away from having a debate with me."
He never said so explicitly, but Perry apparently was referring to a report on CBS' "60 Minutes" that looked at the investments of members of Congress, including Pelosi, House Speaker John Boehner and others, who reportedly bought stocks around the same time related legislation was being discussed. Pelosi and her husband participated in an initial public offering of Visa in 2008, buying 5,000 shares at the initial price of $44, the network reported; two days later, shares were trading at $64, CBS said.
A spokesman for Pelosi said her husband, Paul, sold a fraction of those stocks months later at the height of the financial crisis, when the price had again dropped. Those sales generated a profit of less than $5,000, said Pelosi aide Drew Hammill.
As for the debate dare, "It's unfortunate that a candidate for president is focused on debating anyone other than his primary opponents and repeating false claims," Hammill said late Thursday.
Pelosi was last year's political piÑata. Republicans spent millions of dollars in the 2010 election branding Pelosi with President Barack Obama's unpopular health care overhaul — and it worked. The message appealed to the populist tea party movement, which coalesced around the idea of a smaller, more austere government and surged on anger over the Democratic-controlled government's involvement in economic stimulus, the bailout of the auto and financial industries and the health care law.
Voters a year ago flipped control of the House from Democratic to Republican, and in January, Pelosi relinquished the gavel to now-Speaker John Boehner.
Tea party groups instrumental in those midterm elections are gearing up for the 2012 presidential race — but this time, they're holding Boehner accountable. Pelosi, after all, has been vanquished, one leader of the movement said.
"People still have a very strong opinions about her, but I don't really hear people on the ground talking about her very much," said Jenny-Beth Martin, co-founder of a coalition of groups called Tea Party Patriots, who's most recently visited Ohio and Florida, two states both parties have a good chance of winning. "Her power has been diminished. People are more focused on Speaker Boehner and what the Republican House leadership is doing now."
But, she noted, people do associate Pelosi strongly with the health care overhaul. The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments over the new law in the spring — right at the height of the presidential and congressional election year.
Perry charged ahead at Pelosi Thursday, even though a number of Republicans have also been accused of using information they gained by virtue of their office to trade investments.
"If you and I did that, we would be engaged in criminal activity," Perry said. He challenged Pelosi to turn over her financial records to the Securities and Exchange Commission or a special prosecutor to be examined for evidence of misconduct.
Members of Congress are required by law to make public their financial records every year.
The longtime Texas governor was investigated by the SEC himself in 1996 for a transaction where he bought 2,800 shares in Kinetic Concepts Inc., a company mostly owned by James Leininger, a big donor to Perry and other Texas Republicans. Perry went on to sell 8,000 shares a month later, making $38,000. He was accused of taking a stock tip from Leininger.
"The SEC looked at that and there wasn't anything to it," Perry said Thursday.
Amy reported from Mississippi. Kellman reported from Washington.