Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson seemed taken by surprise when asked Tuesday about oil drilling in the Everglades, apparently unaware it's been a major Florida issue.
Before answering, he laughed at the question.
"Gosh, no one has told me that there's any major reserves in the Everglades, but maybe that's one of the things I need to learn while I'm down here," Thompson said after talking over state issues with Gov. Charlie Crist.
Thompson, who has called for seeking U.S. oil resources wherever they exist, was asked by an Associated Press reporter whether that included drilling in the Everglades.
"I'm not going to start out by taking this, that or the other off the table in terms of our overall energy situation," he said.
In 2002, when Thompson was a Tennessee senator, President Bush announced plans to spend $120 million to buy oil and gas rights on 390,396 acres of federally protected land in the Everglades to safeguard them from drilling.
The decision came as the president's brother, then-Gov. Jeb Bush, was seeking re-election and amid plans for a major expansion of drilling operations on the western edge of the Everglades. President Bush's action was viewed by many as a move to help his brother's political prospects.
Thompson declined to rule out oil drilling in the Everglades, but he did say it would be "a pretty drastic situation."
"On the question of drilling in general, I don't think anybody really prefers to have to drill at all anywhere. I have said we've got to use our own resources," said Thompson, who added that he supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Nobody wants to see $100 oil, either. So we have to do what's reasonable and makes sense."
One of Thompson's rivals, Mitt Romney, expressed surprise over the former senator's position.
"You're kidding?" said Romney, who also was campaigning in Florida. "Let's take that off the table. We're not going to drill in the Everglades. There are certain places in America that are national treasures and the Everglades is one of those."
Last Friday at a campaign stop in Cape Coral along the state's southwest coast, Thompson said he would be open to the idea of drilling off Florida's Gulf of Mexico coastline.
After meeting with the governor, Thompson said he could not commit to one of Crist's top federal priorities: a national insurance backup fund designed to make property insurance more affordable and accessible.
Asked if was satisfied with Thompson's response on Florida issues, Crist answered with a succinct, "Pretty much."
Later, in a phone call with The Associated Press, Crist said, "I wasn't completely overjoyed with the positions ... but I think he'll take some time to respond to them."