SAN DIEGO (AP) – Governor Rick Perry told a Boy Scouts ceremony on Wednesday that the federal government is rudderless, kicking off a trip to California that has stoked speculation that he will enter the Republican contest for president.

Perry fondly recalled his boyhood as a Scout in Texas, including his first visit to Washington, and applauded the group for promoting values such as fellowship, self-reliance, dedication and perseverance.

“I really wish we saw more of that sort of courage throughout our society, yep, including in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Perry didn’t mention President Barack Obama or any politician or by name during a 15-minute speech aboard the USS Midway and he avoided any policy statements, but he drew applause when he took a broad swipe at the nation’s political leaders.

“Just because the federal government happens to be rudderless at the moment, it doesn’t mean the American people have lost their way,” he said.

“I believe in this country because I believe in our people, and even in our darkest hours, the west Texas optimism that I have in my soul tells me that our brightest hour is just around the corner,” he continued.

The trip is the Republican governor’s second to the nation’s most populous state in less than three weeks. A Perry spokesman, Mark Miner, has said it is not connected with the 2012 contest and that Perry has not decided whether to enter the race.

Perry appeared on San Diego conservative radio talk-show Roger Hedgecock’s show Wednesday. He was scheduled to hold a closed-door event Thursday morning with business leaders in Beverly Hills, a city known as a rich source of campaign dollars. He then heads to Newport Beach in Orange County, where he will meet privately with Republican officials.

Later in the day, he planned to be in Sacramento, where he will meet with several dozen GOP legislators, again behind closed doors.

Perry opened his remarks to the Boy Scouts of America’s San Diego-Imperial Council with a thinly veiled reference to the presidential race.

“There are a lot of folks that came here tonight, maybe with an idea that I was going to stand up here and announce something,” he said to applause.

“And actually I am,” he said, going on to joke that he wanted to sign up as campaign manager for the guest of honor, businessman Michael D. McKinnon, to run for California governor. McKinnon, a former Texas state senator and owner of KUSI-TV in San Diego, is not a candidate.

The Boy Scouts’ San Diego chapter is embroiled in a long-running lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the organization and the city in 2000 on behalf of a lesbian couple and an agnostic over its lease of city parkland. Perry avoided mention of the controversy.

A federal judge ruled in 2003 that San Diego acted improperly when it leased 16 acres in Balboa Park and a half-acre on Fiesta Island because the group is a religious organization. The judge said the lease violated federal law that prohibits government promotion of religion.

The case is currently being considered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved last year after the Scouts questioned whether the lesbian and agnostic couples had legal standing to sue.

The Boy Scouts have been a target of preferential treatment lawsuits since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the group has a constitutional right to exclude openly gay men from serving as troop leaders and because it compels members to swear an oath of duty to God.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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