Perry's gaffes during GOP debate could devastate 2012 presidential bid

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry line up on stage before the start of the GOP Debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, on Wednesday.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry line up on stage before the start of the GOP Debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, on Wednesday. MCT

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry and his campaign went into damage-control mode Thursday as Perry vowed to put an epic debate gaffe behind him and return to his core message of job creation and limited government.

Making the rounds on the morning shows, the one-time frontrunner for the Republican nomination dismissed speculation that his brain freeze in a Wednesday night Republican debate would drive him out of the race.

Perry was unable to remember one of three federal agencies he would target for elimination, a verbal gaffe that commentators described as a debilitating blow to an already-struggling campaign.

"If there was a day to quit, this isn’t it,” Perry said on Fox and Friends, pointing out that today is the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday. “We’re going to continue to work, we're going to continue to go back and talk to those people across this country about issues that they're really concerned about.”

Interviewed on CNN, Perry laughingly acknowledged, “Obviously I stepped in it,” but 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.”

Perry’s campaign even turned the memory lapse into a light-heart fund-raising appeal by asking supporters to submit a $5 contribution along with the name of every federal agency they would like to forget.

"We hope you have a long list,” Team Perry said in an overnight email to supporters. “And we promise we will write down every last idea. So we don’t forget."

The campaign said the Texas governor was by no means the first politician to make a verbal stumble.

"We’ve all had human moments," said the email. "President Obama is still trying to find all 57 states. Ronald Reagan got lost somewhere on the Pacific Highway in an answer to a debate question. Gerald Ford ate a tamale without removing the husk.

"And tonight Rick Perry forgot the third agency he wants to eliminate. Just goes to show there are too damn many federal agencies."

The embarrassment nevertheless deepened Perry’s political problems as he tries to recover from a weeks-long slide in the polls. Perry’s campaign said the governor would participate in a debate Saturday in South Carolina, but his participation in further debates is uncertain.

Wednesday’s economic-oriented debate, televised nationally on CNBC from a university near Detroit, was the first since sexual harassment accusations surfaced against surging candidate Herman Cain more than a week ago.

The issue came up briefly during the two-hour event when the Atlanta businessman again denounced the allegations as "unfounded" and defended "my character and my integrity."

Perry hoped to use the debate -- his sixth since entering the race in mid-August -- to tout his evolving economic plan and energize a once-promising campaign that has continued to founder in the polls. But Texas' longest-serving governor stumbled 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." He then acknowledged that he couldn't remember the third one, adding, "Oops."

Another candidate suggested the third agency was the Environmental Protection Agency. Perry said that the EPA "needs to be rebuilt," although it wasn't the agency he was trying to recall. Perry, in responding to a different question, later said "that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago."

Fielding other questions throughout the program, Perry sought to spotlight themes from his campaign, repeating his pledge to whack federal regulation and touting his call for an optional 20 percent flat tax.

But it was Perry's "oops" moment that dominated early debate post-mortems, with some analysts saying the slip-up could wreck his already-troubled candidacy and predicting that it could be remembered for years as one of the bad moments in debate history.

Perry acknowledged to reporters after the debate that "I stepped in it." Perry communications director Ray Sullivan called the slip-up a human mistake and said it would not deter Perry from continuing to press his message of job creation and limited government.

"We had a stumble of style but not substance," Sullivan said on CNBC.

But some experts say it will be tough for Perry to shake off this moment.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said, "You rarely see a senior accomplished politician go completely blank. ... I don't think he will be taken seriously as a candidate for president going forward."

The debate was also crucial for Cain, who was hoping to change the conversation back to the conservative themes that have helped him gain traction in the race, particularly his 9-9-9 economic plan that includes a flat 9 percent personal income tax.

Cain has adamantly denied allegations that he engaged in sexual harassment when he headed the National Restaurant Association more than a decade ago. The controversy intensified this week after an Illinois woman, Sharon Bialek, accused Cain of groping her.

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