By Steve Holland
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rick Perry, who proposed eliminating the U.S. Energy Department during his unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has emerged as a leading candidate to head the agency under President-elect Donald Trump, a transition official said on Sunday.
Democratic U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia also are in the running for the job as Trump continues to fill key positions in his administration ahead of taking office on Jan. 20, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Perry served as governor of Texas, a leading oil-producing state, from 2000 when he succeeded President George W. Bush until 2015. In his two unsuccessful presidential runs, he touted his record of job creation in the second-most-populous state.
Perry's proposal to scrap the Energy Department caused what has become known as his "oops" moment during a November 2011 debate when he could not remember the departments he wanted to eliminate.
"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education and the um, what's the third one there? Let's see," Perry said.
His debate adversaries tried to prod his memory, but Perry ultimately gave up, saying, "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops." It was the Energy Department, which is responsible for U.S. energy policy and oversees the nation's nuclear weapons program.
Perry also ran for the 2016 presidential nomination against Trump but dropped out in September 2015 after gaining little traction. Perry initially was a fierce critic of Trump but later endorsed Trump and called him "the people's choice."
In July 2015, Perry said: "Let no one be mistaken: Donald Trump's candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded."
If Perry gets the job, it would be further indication that the incoming Trump administration may be friendly toward the fossil fuel industry.
Trump is set to pick U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a climate-change skeptic and an advocate for expanded oil and gas development, to head the Interior Department.
Trump's pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an ardent opponent of President Barack Obama's measures to curb climate change who has sued the EPA to block in a bid to undo a key regulation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from coal-fired power plants.
And Trump is expected to name Rex Tillerson, chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp, as secretary of state.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Mary Milliken)