Rick Perry vows to fight on despite the worst gaffe in US debate history
GOVERNOR Rick Perry of Texas has vowed to continue his presidential campaign after suffering the most excruciating 53 seconds in a televised debate since they began in 1960 when John F. Kennedy clashed with Richard Nixon.
"All of us make mistakes," he told CBS News as part of a media blitz to limit the damage caused by an extraordinary gaffe in which he repeatedly failed to remember a key plank of his own domestic policy. "I'm a human being. And the issue here is that I had a lapse of memory."
Mr Perry's policy pledge to close three federal government departments is a radical move, designed to delight small-government conservatives and Tea Party activists. He has repeatedly trumpeted it on the campaign trail.
When the moment came for him to outline his bold vision to millions of viewers tuned into the latest Republican debate, however, he could only remember two departments. There was Education and Commerce. But try as he might, the third one – Energy – eluded him.
In the audience and in the debate press room in Michigan, at first there were giggles, then there were shakes of the heads and expressions of disbelief. Finally, there was silence. Perhaps worst of all for Mr Perry was that the overall reaction was not one of disgust or even mockery – it was pity.
It took just 53 seconds for a campaign that was already in deep trouble after previous shaky debate performances by Mr Perry to be plunged into deep and possibly terminal crisis.
"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone, Commerce, Education and the, er, what's the third one there? Let's see ..." Mr Perry started to say, prompting suggestions from some of his rivals and giggles in the audience.
Eventually he concluded: "I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and – let's see – I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry." With a sheepish grin, he added simply: "Oops!" Some 15 minutes later, Mr Perry said: "By the way, that was the Dept of Energy I was reaching for."
Pundits and political strategists searched their minds for other flubs. There was the time in 1976 when President Gerald Ford asserted that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe".
Senator Lloyd Bentsen humiliated vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle in 1988 by responding to a reference to his having as much experience as Mr Kennedy when he won the White House by telling him: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
But nothing quite compared to the spectacle of Mr Perry, who two months ago was the Republican front-runner, stammering as his fellow candidates lobbed in suggestions and then checking his crib notes before finally conceding he was flummoxed.
At the debate in Michigan, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the party establishment favourite delivered yet another assured performance.
Mr Perry's onstage freeze also benefited Herman Cain, who is neck and neck with Mr Romney in the polls but has faced a wave of allegations of sexual harassment over the previous 10 days. There were boos from the crowd when CNBC moderators asked him about the allegations.
'The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," he responded, to cheers. "And I value my character and my integrity more than anything else."
After the debate, Mr Perry came into the press "spin room" himself – almost unprecedented for a top tier candidate – to admit that he had made a monumental stumble. "I'm glad I had my boots on tonight," he said. "I stepped in it out there."
He added: "I may have forgotten Energy, but I haven't forgotten my conservative principles." Asked if he felt embarrassed, he said: "I stepped in it, man. Yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was."
But he insisted he would not pull out of future debates, the next of which is in Spartanburg, South Carolina at the weekend. "Absolutely not, I'll be in South Carolina on Saturday," he said.
Asked about Mr Perry's stumble, Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney strategist, offered a quotation from Graham Greene's novels "The Comedians".
"It reminds me of what Graham Greene said about Haiti under Papa Doc, 'There's nothing I could say that could darken that moment'. The nominee of our party is going to have three high-profile debates with President Obama.
"Governor Romney is going to be prepared to take on that challenge. And to make the case for why Obama's economic policies have failed."
Ray Sullivan, Mr Perry's spokesman, said that the moment was embarrassing but showed "that Rick Perry is a human being and not a robot" and would put quickly put it behind him.
"This was a stumble of style, not substance. We believe on the substance, we win." He added that "he still named two more agencies to eliminate than this president".
Mr Perry has raised a substantial amount of campaign cash and, as the longest-serving governor in Texas history and with a staunch conservative record he remains a formidable candidate on paper.
But Republican as well as Democratic strategists were declaring his candidacy moribund even before the debate was over. Michael Barone, a conservative and political historian, said it was "it was the worst moment in a debate I have ever seen" in 51 years of watching them.