Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday defended his use of a state jet to fly to political events and conduct state business in Washington, saying he hadn't used the plane more than previous governors.
"I will tell you that compared to my predecessor, my hours on our state plane are almost exactly the same, less than 10 percent difference per year," Barbour told The Associated Press during a visit to Iowa.
Democrat Ronnie Musgrove served as Mississippi governor before Barbour was elected in 2003. The Republican governor was re-elected in 2007.
State finance records show Barbour billed taxpayers $7,020 to fly himself, his wife, two aides and two security guards to Washington, where Barbour spoke before the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. The trip was part of a weekend of politicking that also included an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
Time magazine first reported on its website that Barbour had billed taxpayers for the trip. The Associated Press obtained flight records Thursday that listed the purpose of the trip as "meeting with congressional members."
The flight has created an image problem for Barbour because it clashes with the tough-minded fiscal conservative message the prospective presidential candidate has offered on the campaign trail.
But Barbour said Friday he had state business in Washington, and his aides said that justified use of the Cessna Citation.
"The trip requests make it clear the governor was on official business, including meetings with members of Congress about issues ranging from economic development to energy policy and health care reform _ all important to the people of Mississippi," spokeswoman Laura Hipp said.
Barbour has not released details of his schedule for that weekend.
Barbour spoke briefly to the AP before an event with a conservative group in suburban Des Moines. Reporters weren't allowed into that event, sponsored by a conservative group called the Iowa Renewal Society.
"I'm just glad to meet them and talk about what's going on in the country," Barbour said. "We've got foreign policy issues, we've got economic issues."
Barbour said he won't make a decision on seeking the Republican presidential nomination until next month. But, he will appear Saturday at a forum of potential Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines.
One of the people joining him will be former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent part of Friday taping an episode of Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program to air later in the weekend. Gingrich criticized President Barack Obama's handling of air assaults in Libya and accused him of going to war without having a real consultation with Congress.
"We're seeing a president flounder on Libya," Gingrich said. "This is nonsense. The American involvement is a mess."
But Gingrich himself has wavered on Libya. Two weeks ago, he criticized Obama for not being more forceful in leading an international campaign to destroy Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses and save rebels from defeat. Then Wednesday, he backtracked and said he wouldn't have intervened if he'd been president.
Gingrich said he'll likely announce a decision on running for president in the next five weeks but left little doubt that he's likely to seek the GOP nomination.
"I think it's fair to say we're a lot closer to running than not running," he said.
Gingrich and Barbour will be joined Saturday by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain at the event sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican from western Iowa.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report from Jackson, Miss.