David Wiegel: The Great Oops that put Mitt in pole position

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The video of the meltdown, repeated again and again and again on cable news and radio yesterday, is utterly revealing. Rick Perry wants to abolish three government agencies. "Commerce," he says. "Education, and the... what's the third one there? Let's see." For 53 seconds, Perry can't state his own position. He wraps with a pathetic mumur of "oops".

That's resounding beyond the small university that hosted this debate. What you missed, if you weren't on campus, was a roomful of reporters wincing and sucking in air, disbelieving about how badly the guy had blown it.

If the press still matters in the Republican primary, Perry has lost more than he knows. Political reporters have spent this year writing new drafts of an extremely consistent story. Mitt Romney is stronger than ever in the states that hold the first two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet he cannot break through a ceiling of about 25 per cent in Iowa. He is weak in the southern states that usually end up picking Republican nominees.

And so, all year, the media has been on the lookout for the "anti-Romney". Perry had been that, briefly, and before the Great Oops it looked like he could be it again. Herman Cain has started to bleed support. Michele Bachmann has become an afterthought. Perry had the financial connections and résumé to challenge Romney. After the Oops, it doesn't matter.

What happens now? As Perry's animated corpse walked the campus last night, a Romney adviser told me the primary would come down to "Romney and Newt Gingrich". The former House speaker, who last won an election in 1998, is arguably the most adroit debater in his party. He's also 68, horrifically unpopular outside of his base and proudly unable to stay "on message". He doesn't stammer. He's still the anti-Romney that the frontrunner is most ready to put away.