Three months after riding confidently into the Republican nomination race, Governor Rick Perry of Texas managed in a television debate last night to clobber his own campaign by boldly declaring that he would close three government departments as US president and then finding he could remember only two of them.
“And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he began. “Commerce, Education, and the – what’s the third one there? Let’s see...Okay. Commerce, Education, and the…” The fumble, from which he could not extract himself, was an excruciating moment for a candidate who has already seen his early high poll ratings collapse because of poor reviews of his debating skills.
Within moments of the debate ending, Governor Perry made directly for the packed press room adjacent to the debate venue at Oakland University, in Rochester, Michigan, to try to repair some of the damage. “I’m glad I had my boots on tonight because I sure stepped in it,” he said to reporters, attempting to leaven what was evidently an awful moment for him with humour. “Yes, it was embarrassing, of course it was.”
The Perry blunder was an unexpected gift to the other seven candidates on the stage but perhaps especially to Herman Cain, who had arrived here last night in the midst of his own special drama triggered by the surfacing from his past of allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women when he was leader of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. “Why should American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?” a moderator for the CNBC cable network asked.
Pushing back against the question, Cain earned loud applause from the audience at the debate. “I value my character and my integrity more than anything else,” he said referring to his still strong fundraising success and more or less stable poll numbers that have put him neck and neck with long-time front-runner, Mitt Romney. “Over the last nine days, the voters have voted with their dollars, and they’re saying they don’t care about the character assassination. They care about leadership and getting this economy going.”
Mr Cain, however, made his own apologies after the debate was over for referring to Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House, as “Princess Pelosi”. In any circumstance, making such a disparaging quip about one of America’s most powerful women might have cost Mr Cain. Given his current problems, the remark seemed especially unwise. “That was a statement I probably should not have made,” he said.
The whole issue of Mr Cain and the allegations against him that have dominated news cycles in the US for the last nine days was over at the debate almost as quickly as it started, shut down, in fact, by Mr Romney. “Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions,” Mr Romney said when asked what he thought about the charges. “The people in the room and across the country can make their own assessment.”
For sure, the stumbles of Mr Perry will be enough to change the subject for now. “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.
It was about ten minutes further into the debate when Mr Perry finally recalled the third of the three agencies was that he wanted to axe. It was the Department of Energy.