DETROIT -- What now?
That is the question hanging over the Republican presidential primary, after Rick Perry's Motor City meltdown. Perry's epic brain freeze Wednesday night recast the GOP contest in a new light, placing Mitt Romney in a position of unchallenged supremacy to his peers.
Perry, despite his past gaffes and miscues, had nonetheless been seen as the most formidable challenger to Romney because the Texas governor raised $17 million in his first six weeks in the race. That war chest, along with a super PAC that hopes to spend $55 million on his behalf, made Perry a durable contender who could box with Romney through the first few contests and potentially give him a run for his money.
All that is changed now.
Perry fell flat on his face Wednesday night in a way that is likely not redeemable, even by a good-natured attempt on Perry's part to poke fun at himself and to proactively go on all five morning TV shows. Perry was also set to read the "Top 10 List" on David Letterman's late night show later in the day Thursday. But the debate gaffe compounded his "bought for $5,000" comment, his remark that those who disagree with him on immigration are "heartless," and his bizarre New Hampshire speech that has been seen online now by over 1.5 million people.
It was a Howard Dean moment.
But who can challenge Romney now? Herman Cain is beset by sexual harassment allegations. The debate crowd Wednesday night was enthusiastically supportive of Cain, but most observers think the multiple women bringing accusations is bound to bring the former National Restaurant Association CEO back to earth.
Newt Gingrich? He's clearly feeling confident in his momentum and is best positioned to benefit from a media narrative that will seek to place him next to Romney. But he has a high hurdle to overcome organizationally, as well as with regards to fundraising, and there are major questions about his character.
Rick Santorum is organized, but going nowhere in the polls. He remained confident Wednesday night that all his hard work -- and he has worked harder, maybe, than any other candidate to do ground-level, retail campaigning -- will pay off.
"After Thanksgiving people are going to start to focus on these races, and we will have built a very impressive organization in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and even South Carolina. We have to capitalize on one or both those states. I think we can do it," Santorum told The Huffington Post.
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens exuded confidence, declaring that "there's not really an anti-Romney vote because Romney doesn't have high negatives," and dismissing concern about the fact that Romney has not been able to move higher than 25 percent or so in most polls.
"One of the great understated virtues in politics is patience," Stevens said. "It's like Christmas shopping. People shop when they want to and all the pre-Christmas sales, but people still do last-minute Christmas shopping … You can make up your mind when you want to make up your mind. There's a bunch of candidates. There's a bunch of debates. There's no reason to make up your mind now."
Stevens said he has never wanted Romney to be the clear frontrunner, but it was clear Wednesday night that his mind was moving toward a general election showdown with President Obama.
"From the very beginning, this campaign was put together to beat Barack Obama's campaign, which is a daunting, formidable task," Stevens said.
This article was updated to include news of Rick Perry's television appearances, in the wake of his Detroit debate mistakes.