Presidential hopeful Rick Perry was pulling out all the stops on Thursday to try to resurrect his campaign after one of the most embarrassing blunders ever in a major debate.
His failure to remember which government agency he would scrap if he was in the White House was even worse than Gerald Ford’s statement that the Soviet Union didn’t dominate eastern Europe in 1976, pollster Matt Towery told Newsmax.
And political analyst Larry Sabato called Perry's performance “the most devastating of any modern primary debate."
But Perry took it on the chin, making an emergency round of television appearances in a bid to spin his gaffe in the best way possible.
“I stepped in it last night, that’s for sure,” he told Fox News. “I bet there are a lot of Americans out there that would like to forget some agencies of government too,” he quipped on CNN.
“I’m human like everyone else,” he said on MSNBC.
He even scheduled a last-minute appearance on Late Night with David Letterman for Thursday night, where he is bound to be the butt of his host’s jokes.
The Texas governor's blunder came when he said he would eliminate three agencies if he was president, “Commerce, Education and the – what's the third one there? Let's see."
Other candidates and audience members laughed nervously as Perry struggled to remember the third. Ron Paul, who was standing to his left on the stage, said five agencies should go and Perry agreed, but still couldn’t remember the names.
“Commerce, Education and the um, um, um,” he said before Mitt Romney, on his right, suggested the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The EPA, there you go” agreed Perry before moderator John Harwood asked him if that was the agency he really meant. “No sir,” replied Perry. “We were talking about the agencies of government – the EPA needs to be rebuilt, there’s no doubt about that.
Looking incredulous, Harwood asked, “But you can’t name the third one?” and Perry replied, “The third agency of government I would do away with, Education, the um Commerce, and let’s see…I can’t, the third one I can’t…oops.”
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Later in the debate he remembered that the Department of Energy was the one he would ax.
Towery told Newsmax that the performance was devastating to Perry’s chances. Even if he were to win the GOP nomination, it would be shown time and time again in attack ads in a general election campaign.
“It screams of ‘not ready for prime time,’” said Towery, head of the InsiderAdvantage polling firm. “It was a disaster and he knows it and his campaign knows it.
“This is not what I usually see in a candidate,” Towery added. “They build as the race goes on, they don’t fall apart. I don’t know what his campaign is advising him to do to relax himself, but it isn’t working.
“If you cannot remember a critical part of your campaign, one that you have repeated numerous times, there is something wrong. I have trained people to debate on television and this just doesn’t happen.
“Even the worst candidates remember the major planks of their campaigns.”
Perry had not even been asked what agencies he would eliminate, he brought up the subject in reply to another question.
“He didn’t have a gun pointed at him,” said Towery. “It was like he picked up the gun and blew his brains out.”
Towery was not the only one who said Perry’s mistake will haunt him. “One has to wonder if Perry’s heart is still in this race,” conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in her column for the Washington Post.
“It was a moment so painful, the embarrassment so great, that the principal reaction among tough-as-nails reporters was pity.”
Fox News’ Juan Williams said his gaffe could put him out of contention. “He more than stepped in it and messed up his shoes. I think it's more like he stepped in a hole and he is in danger here of just disappearing," said Williams.
Top political pundit Larry Sabato Tweeted, “Is it possible that Perry’s campaign ended tonight? Sounds harsh but it was that bad. I actually HOPE he was on drugs. Would explain it.”
Sabato called the flub “the most devastating of any modern primary debate,” adding “Just imagine what Saturday Night Live and Colbert are going to do with Perry’s ‘senior moment.’”
Michael Memoli of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Just like that, all of Rick Perry’s past debate struggles were forgotten. But only because he had topped them all, and then some.”
Ken Walsh of US News and World Report said Perry’s brain freeze “will put him in the highlight reel of the all-time worst gaffes in the history of political debates.”
Towery said there were only two other debate performances that he could recall that were anything like as bad: Ford’s Soviet Union mistake in a debate with Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis’ lack of passion when he was asked what he would do if someone raped his wife, during a 1988 debate with George H.W. Bush.
But Perry’s blunder was the worst of the three, he said. “He took a good 20 seconds to make it clear he didn’t know what he was saying.”
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