Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on Sunday defended his law firm's role in representing Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is ultimately controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying it was helping protect American jobs.

Giuliani acknowledged though, that his opponents will try to exploit the news that a lawyer with Bracewell & Giuliani in Houston has been representing Citgo before the Texas legislature.

The firm has had a contract with Citgo since before Giuliani joined it.

"Oh, they'll exploit everything," Giuliani said in an interview. "There are things that make sense and things that don't make sense and that doesn't make any sense. It was one of those political attacks where you have nothing to do with it, you're not involved in it and so it doesn't really worry you very much. What they're doing is lawful and honorable and helping to protect jobs for more than 100,000 Americans."

Although Citgo Petroleum is a U.S.-based company, it was bought in 1990 by Petroleos de Venezuela, the national oil company of Venezuela. It employs 4,000 people in Texas and other states, and Giuliani said indirectly more than 100,000 people have jobs because of the company.

Chavez has been an outspoken critic of President Bush and is close to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Because of that, Citgo has become unpopular with some conservative groups and politicians who have called for a boycott. Citgo has tried to garner goodwill by setting up a program to provide discounted heating oil to needy Americans and working on behalf of charitable causes such as disaster relief and fighting muscular dystrophy.

Giuliani was in Florida raising money at a New York Yankees spring training game. After the fundraiser, the former New York mayor watched the game from a front row seat directly behind Yankees manager Joe Torre. He discussed Chavez during the game, saying he is one of the reasons why the United States needs to develop alternative fuels and become energy independent.

"As the president I would make that my number one priority, the way Eisenhower and Kennedy made getting to the moon the number one priority of the American government. It has to consume a tremendous amount of our attention," Giuliani said.

If the country had done so in the 1970s, the nation would be more secure now, he said.

He called Chavez dangerous and said the United States needs to use concerns about him to build relations with Latin American countries.

"We've got to learn how to play Chavez. There's a lot of concern in America about Chavez; there's even more concern in South America. We have to sort of use that to bring them to the United States," he said.