'And my third point is, er...' Perry blows chance with debate clanger

Republican hopeful's memory lapse hands Mitt Romney initiative in race for nomination

Rochester

The road to the Republican nomination seemed clearer than ever last night for Mitt Romney, after Rick Perry dropped a clanger that will live in the annals of American presidential debates.

With Mr Perry admitting afterwards that he had "sure stepped in it" and Hermain Cain struggling to escape allegations of sexual harassment, it was Mr Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, who stood mostly serene in Wednesday night's debate. But his performance will barely be remembered beside that of Mr Perry, the Governor of Texas, who began to list the three government departments he would eliminate – and forgot the third one.

"They know there's not a perfect candidate that's made yet," Mr Perry said yesterday as his campaign tried to assess the damage caused by his brain-freeze. It was almost too painful to watch. Having ticked off education and commerce as two of the three federal departments he would shut down, he suddenly found himself at a loss. His floundering lasted an excruciating 53 seconds. "The third one, I can't," he said. "Sorry. Oops." (He admitted 10 minutes later it was the Energy Department he had been "reaching for".)

At the start of the debate the buzz inside the auditorium at Oakland University in Rochester, 30 minutes north of Detroit, was all about Mr Cain and how he would deal with questions about the claims made by four women that he had behaved inappropriately in encounters that took place over a decade ago. But no one could foresee that Mr Perry would end up making such an idiot of himself.

It was an undignified splatter of the kind few veterans of televised debates could remember, and it came on a night when Mr Perry needed to present himself as a credible alternative first to Mr Cain, whose support has shown early signs of weakening, and thereafter to Mr Romney. He was also under pressure to repair the impression of his being a poor debater. Neither of these missions, needless to say, was accomplished. "To my memory, Perry's forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate," Larry Sabato, director of the political department at the University of Virginia remarked.

Mark McKinnon, a former aide to George W Bush, called it "the human equivalent of shuttle Challenger". Only eight weeks remain before the first votes are cast to choose who will face Barack Obama next year.

Last night Governor Perry was already being asked whether he could even stay in the contest. "You bet I'm going to continue on," he told NBC. "Going through that long list of government agencies is really what this campaign's all about. I'm human like everyone else."

Mr Romney was questioned about his reputation for changing tack on policy positions to suit the political moment, but it didn't seem to unnerve him. "People understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," he said, citing his marriage of more than 40 years and his loyalty to his church. The biggest question for the Romney campaign is why he cannot seem to pull further ahead in the polls: he still wins the support of only about one quarter of Republicans. Asked by a reporter if his candidate was still proving to be a "weak front-runner", his top aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, said he hoped Mr Romney's strength would show through "when voting begins and when he starts winning primaries".

His failure to break loose suggests he is not trusted on the conservative wing. Many of those voters flocked to Mr Perry over the summer and, disenchanted there, seemed to become enthralled by Mr Cain. His problems, too, are unlikely to go away quickly. Yet at the debate, Mr Cain won loud applause – after boos for the moderators – when he pushed back against a question about the sexual harassment allegations. "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," he said. "I value my character and my integrity more than anything else."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk