Perry Admits Major Screw-Up at Debate Last Night

Rick PerryRick Perry says he “stepped in it.” Now he’s trying to clean off his boot.

Pictured: Republican
presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a Republican
Presidential Debate at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich.,
Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)


The Texas governor was
looking to stem any fallout Thursday from a major misstep he made the
night before during a GOP presidential debate.

Perry said he would eliminate three federal agencies but struggled to name them.

“Commerce, Education and the – what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” the Texas governor said.

Perry’s rivals tried to bail him out, suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency.

“EPA, there you go,” Perry said, seemingly taking their word for it.

But that wasn’t it. And when pressed, the candidate drew another blank.

“Seriously?” moderator John Harwood, one of the CNBC debate hosts, asked. “You can’t name the third one?”

“The
third agency of government I would do away with – the Education, the
Commerce. And let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t,” Perry said.
“Oops.”

Later in the debate, Perry revisited the question and said he meant to call for the elimination of the Energy Department.

The immediate fallout was brutal – at least on Twitter.

“Perry response will be on highlight reels for years to come,” business legend Jack Welch tweeted.

“Off
screen, Dr. (Ron) Paul is sadly administering the last rites to Rick
Perry,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy added. “Dr. Paul filling out
paperwork as they haul Perry away. He’s ruling it a suicide.”

“Rick
Perry just lost the debate. And the entire election. You only had to
name three,” Tim Albrecht, the top spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry
Branstad, who is unaligned in the GOP race, tweeted from his personal
account.

After the debate, Perry appeared to be in damage control mode.

In
dramatic fashion, he bee-lined it to the “spin room” where a crush of
reporters were gathered to interview campaign surrogates – and he
immediately indicated that he knew he had made a really bad mistake. The
first words out of his mouth as reporters crowded around: “I’m glad I
had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight.”

Still,
Perry almost seemed to minimize the impact, adding: “People understand
that it is our conservative principles that matter.”

“We
all felt very bad for him,” Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota
congresswoman also running for the nomination, said after the debate,
calling the moment uncomfortable.

The next few days will shed light on whether voters care about the misstep – and punish him for it.

Over
the past two weeks, Perry has sought to prove he’s still a credible
challenger to Mitt Romney by rolling out detailed policy proposals. But
he’s found himself dogged by suggestions that he had been drinking or
taking drugs when he gave an animated speech in New Hampshire. It went
viral online, prompting Perry to state that he was not, in fact, under
the influence of a substance.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” did a Perry parody last weekend that was widely viewed.

In
recent days, the candidate started to take his message directly to the
voters by running sunny biographical television ads in early primary
states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s an effort to reintroduce
himself to Republican primary voters in a safer setting that circumvents
the news media.

Wednesday’s was the latest
tough debate for the GOP candidate who has struggled in the national
spotlight since entering the race in August, the last time he was at the
top of polls. His standing has fallen throughout the fall, and he’s
fighting to gain ground less than two months before the leadoff Iowa
caucuses.

He has committed to four more
debates in a year when the GOP electorate is clearly tuned into them,
but his advisers are considering skipping future ones.

Presidential
debates have offered pivotal moments for decades, from Al Gore’s
audible sighs in 2000 to Michael Dukakis’ tepid answer about the death
penalty in 1988.

A statement by Gerald Ford in
a 1976 presidential debate is among the most memorable, however. Ford
famously baffled audiences when he said, “There is no Soviet domination
of Eastern Europe.” Later pressed by the moderator, he refused to back
down. The moment haunted the rest of his losing campaign.

Publicly, Perry aides sought to downplay Wednesday night’s shaky answer.

“We
had a stumble of style and not substance,” insisted Ray Sullivan,
Perry’s top communications adviser. “He still named two more agencies
than this president” would eliminate.

Perry
had no public schedule on Thursday and planned to raise money privately
at events in Tennessee. His next public campaign stops were scheduled in
South Carolina on Friday – a day before yet another debate.

Source: Kasie Hunt and Philip Elliot, The Associated Press

Elliott reported from Washington.

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