'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

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."