ROCHESTER, Mich. -- It's rare that a politician evokes pity, but in 55 seconds during Wednesday night's presidential debate, Rick Perry managed it.
The Texas governor promised to eliminate three federal government agencies, and then searched his memory -- for what seemed like an eternity -- to name a third.
"It's three government agencies when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there. Let's see," Perry said. He turned to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, looking for some help, but got nothing but a remark from Paul that he would eliminate five agencies.
"Oh five," Perry said. "So Commerce, Education, and, uh, the uh, um, um."
"EPA?" offered former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"EPA, there ya go," Perry said as the room exploded in laughter.
CNBC moderator John Harwood honed in and pressed Perry: "Seriously? Is EPA the one you were talking about?"
"No sir. No sir. We were talking about the, um, agencies of government," Perry said. "The EPA needs to be rebuilt."
"But you can't name the third one?" Harwood persisted.
"The third agency of government," Perry said. "I would do away with the education, the um, Commerce, and let's see. I can't think of the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."
His voice trailed off as he uttered his apology, and he looked defeated. Reporters in the press filing area looked on with eyes wide open and mouths agape.
Perry has already been beset by unforced errors in his less than three months as a presidential candidate, but this topped all of his previous gaffes. It was a moment that very well might have extinguished his chances of coming back and competing with Romney.
The Texan -- who has admitted he is not a good debater -- nonetheless entered the night needing to dramatically elevate his performance in these settings and to at least demonstrate a certain level of competence and command of the issues.
Instead, Perry's jaw-dropping memory lapse created a solid minute of full-color video memorializing the governor as a bumbling joke.
Perry knew he had made a serious mistake, and for the first time in nine debates he came to speak with reporters in the filing center after the debate.
"Yeah I stepped in it man. Yeah it was embarrassing. Of course it was," he said. "But here's what's more important. People understand that our principles, our conservative principles, are what matter."
Perry's top spokesman, Ray Sullivan, said Perry came in to address the issue himself because "he felt it was important to address the stumble."
"That was a stumble of style, not substance," Sullivan said.
Perry's campaign manager, Rob Johnson, called it "a human moment."
But the assessment of others was brutal: "I think he's done," said one operative affiliated with another campaign.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was blunt: "There's nothing I could say that could darken the night Rick perry had."
Until Perry's low moment, he had been largely overshadowed during the debate, and overall the candidates refrained from attacking one another. The forum focused almost exclusively on the U.S. and global economy.
Romney sailed through the night, answering economic questions with his usual self-assurance and command. He turned back a query by Harwood about whether he has core convictions with a rehearsed answer, though he did trip over how long he has been married to his wife, Ann.
"I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," Romney said. "I don't think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do. I have been married to the same woman for 25 -- excuse me, I will get in trouble, for 42 years."
"I have been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games," he added. "I think it is outrageous the Obama campaign continues to push this idea, when you have in the Obama administration the most political presidency we have seen in modern history."
Newt Gingrich continued to gain steam, clearly feeling momentum that does seem to be building behind his candidacy, though questions remain about his character and his viability as a commander-in-chief. But the former House speaker from Georgia again mocked the press as being out of touch with the economy, and made light of the debate format's compressed nature.
"To say in 30 seconds what you would do with 18 percent of the economy, life and death for the American people, a topic I've worked on since 1974, about which I wrote about called 'Saving Lives and Saving Money' in 2002, and for which I founded the Center for Health Transformation, is the perfect case of why I'm going to challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas style three-hour debates with a timekeeper and no moderator, at least two of which ought to be on health care so you can have a serious discussion over a several-hour period that affects the lives of every person in this country," Gingrich said, in what was likely the longest sentence of the night.
When he did answer the question on how he would reform health care after repealing President Obama's health care overhaul, Gingrich had more specifics.
"One, you go back to a doctor-patient relationship and you involve the family in those periods where the patient by themselves can't make key decisions. But you re-localize it," he said. "Two, as several people said, including Governor Perry, you put Medicaid back at the state level and allow the states to really experiment because it's clear we don't know what we are doing nationally. Three, you focus very intensely on a brand-new program on brain science because the fact is the largest single out-year set of costs we are faced with are Alzheimer's, autism, Parkinson's, mental health, and things which come directly from the brain."
The debate was the first since Oct. 18, and ushered in a second debate-heavy phase of the primary. After three weeks off, the candidates will face each other six more times in the next six weeks before Christmas and the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
CNBC, which hosted the debate, kept it focused on the economy, and its one attempt to ask Herman Cain about his sexual harassment allegations was met with boos from the audience. Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and the National Restaurant Association, brushed off the accusations.
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," Cain said to loud applause. "I value my character and my integrity more than anything else. For every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are thousands who would say, none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain."
"A lot of people," Cain added, "are still very enthusiastic behind my candidacy."
The debate took place amid the backdrop of a continued economic struggle in Detroit and the state of Michigan.
Michigan's unemployment rate is the third-highest in the nation at 11.1 percent last month, down 3 percent from its peak in September 2009, but still a full two points higher than the national jobless rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Detroit metro area data is worse: Almost 12.7 percent of workers here were jobless in September. The unofficial unemployment rate for black males in Detroit is said to be near 50 percent.
In September, more than 250,000 workers in the Detroit metropolitan statistical area were unemployed, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. About one quarter of Detroit's population left between 2000 and 2010, according to the Associated Press.
But the auto bailouts of 2008 and 2009 have lifted Detroit automakers out of despair, and they have recovered after declaring bankruptcy under a government-managed process. Chrysler posted a $212 million profit in the third quarter of 2011. GM made $1.7 billion in the third quarter -- 15 percent less than a year ago, but still a sign that the company continues to rebound.
Romney has been under attack from Democrats for his stance in 2008 that the automakers should not receive federal funds without strings attached. He was pressed during the debate on one of his difficult-to-pin-down assessments of whether or not the government should have bailed out the automotive industry. As in the past, he insisted that he had been perfectly consistent on the matter.
His view, he reiterated, was that a managed bankruptcy process should have been pursued, rather than propping up the Big Three automakers with taxpayer funds until they ultimately went through a variation of that process.
"My plan, we would have had a private sector bailout with the right private sector restructuring ... as opposed to government playing its heavy hand," he said.
The crowd in Michigan -- one of the states directly (and positively) affected by the bailout -- cheered his answer.
Simone Landon contributed to this report.
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