Perry pokes fun at his brain freeze, but his campaign is wounded

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2011 

AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry and his campaign turned to self-deprecating humor on Thursday to help overcome his embarrassing debate gaffe, but analysts said the potential impact on Perry's struggling campaign was deadly serious.

Perry, who was unable to remember one of the three federal agencies he would target for elimination, agreed to deliver the famed "Top 10 List" parody on the "Late Show with David Letterman." And his campaign, in the political equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons, turned Perry's memory lapse into a lighthearted fundraising appeal by asking supporters to submit a $5 contribution with the name of every federal agency they would like to forget.

The one-time front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination appeared on morning news shows to dismiss speculation that his stumble in the Michigan debate Wednesday night would drive him out of the race. He vowed to forge ahead with his core message of job creation and limited government and remained committed to participating in the next GOP debate, in South Carolina on Saturday night.

"Obviously I stepped in it," Perry told CNN in a damage-control offensive that began shortly after the debate ended. He added: "I have my moment of humor with it and I press on and understand that there are a lot more serious things facing this country than whether or not I could remember the Department of Energy at an inappropriate time."

Declared Perry: "This ain't a day for quitting nothing."

But Perry's stumble, coming on top of poor performances in earlier debates and a hyper-animated speech in New Hampshire, dominated post-debate news coverage Thursday, as analysts delivered a litany of withering critiques with terms such as "brain freeze," "Chernobyl-style meltdown" and "slow-motion brain wreck."

Some declared the Perry campaign effectively dead. Others said the Texas governor, with his well-financed campaign organization, could remain in the race but was probably through as a genuine contender for the nomination.

"Perry dug his own grave last night," said Republican consultant Mark McKinnon of Austin, who served as a campaign adviser to former President George W. Bush. "He may continue on through Iowa to try and save some face. But he's a dead man walking."

Perry, who is waging his first national campaign after more than a quarter-century in Texas politics, has dropped steadily in the polls after a brief stint atop them. He was counting on Wednesday's debate — his sixth since entering the race in mid-August — to tout his evolving economic plan and re-energize his once-promising campaign.

But he went blank midway through the event as he began naming three agencies on his hit list.

"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education, and the ... what's the third one, there? Let's see." After stumbling blankly for almost a full minute, he acknowledged that he couldn't remember the third one, adding, "Oops."

Experts said many voters likely would sympathize with the Perry campaign's depiction of the gaffe as a human mistake that virtually anyone could make. But, at the same time, they said, Perry muffed his own talking points and raised doubts about his ability to go toe-to-toe in a debate against President Barack Obama or to deal with foreign leaders should he become president.

The extent of damage to the campaign will become more apparent with new polls and in Perry's ability to continue raising money. Perry amassed more than $17 million in seven weeks to become the third biggest fundraiser in the presidential race after Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a top-tier contender for the Republican nomination.

"A gaffe like that has the potential to stop the flow of money into Gov. Perry's war chest," said Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign spending. "The larger the gaffe, the greater the potential for the flow of money to stop. That said, Gov. Perry's supporters may also be willing to forgive — or overlook — his forgetfulness on stage last night.

"Either way, Gov. Perry ended the third quarter in strong financial shape, and as long as he doesn't lose his deepest-pocketed supporters, he'll still be able to get his message out ahead of the impending early caucuses and primaries," Beckel said.

Perry has set his sights on a strong showing in the Jan 3. Iowa caucuses. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of Perry's major fundraisers, said that donors "remain very excited about the Perry campaign," predicting that fallout from Wednesday's debate will have no significant effect on fundraising or the governor's candidacy.

"He has come out very, very strong why he should be the Republican nominee, and a minor debate gaffe is not a defining moment about who would be the best president," said Abbott.

Thomas Wiebe, the CEO of a design firm in Tampa, Fla., who has given $500 to the campaign, said he continues to support Perry and his conservative message but may be forced to consider other candidates if Perry loses altitude.

"We just kind of feel bad for him," said Wiebe. "I still like him a lot but I haven't made my final decision."

Henry Barbour, a Mississippi consultant who has agreed to raise $500,000 for the Perry campaign, conceded that the memory lapse was "embarrassing," But he said he believes "there is still ample time for him to make his case about why he should be president. I'm sure that last night is not going to help, but what is important is how you respond to adversity."

In an overnight email to supporters, Team Perry said the Texas governor was not the first politician to make a verbal stumble, noting, "We've all had human moments." The email asked supporters to send in names of federal agencies they would like to forget along with a $5 donation for each one.

"We hope you have a long list," said the campaign. "And we promise we will write down every last idea. So we don't forget."

(Dave Montgomery is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.)

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