Perry tries to josh his way past debate blunder

Published On: Nov 11 2011 12:45:05 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 11 2011 01:34:41 PM CST
Rick Perry
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -

Rick Perry tried Thursday to convince the country he was in on the joke after his disastrous debate performance, but even his supporters worried aloud about damage to his already hobbling Republican presidential campaign.

Perry didn't try to defend his minute-long stammer that, unfortunately for him, was just about the only memorable part of the confrontation with his seven rivals. Instead, he spent the day in a flurry of media appearances trying to laugh about his embarrassing struggle to remember the third of three federal departments he wants to abolish.

He ended the Wednesday night episode with an abashed, grinning, "Oops." On Thursday, he agreed to go on David Letterman's "Late Show" and offer the Top Ten List.

The debate excerpt was replayed over and over on television, already labeled one of the worst such blunders ever.

"That's pretty brutal isn't it?" he said on Fox News, giving viewers an alternative Perry sound bite to compete with the video. "I stepped in it. I think some of it is still stuck on my feet."

He doesn't have much time to clean up. Less than eight weeks before the first nominating contests, GOP voters are looking for the best candidate to go head to head against President Barack Obama.

"It's something he needs to address pretty quickly," said uncommitted Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an early primary state. But Graham said Perry has time and a key survival tool: money.

Perry reported some $15 million banked during his most recent fundraising period. His advisers say he has enough cash on hand to get through South Carolina.

If he isn't able to log some good results by that point, the third GOP state, he may be best remembered for a 54-second piece of campaign history.

Perry acknowledged it was a tough moment as he flailed. In the debate, he said he would eliminate three federal agencies, starting with Commerce and Education. He struggled to name the third, pointing to Energy only later in the debate. He squirmed while his opponents and the audience laughed and debate moderator John Harwood incredulously said, "You can't name the third one?"

"It wasn't even on the tip of my tongue," Perry said.

Perry has long acknowledged he's a poor debater but has held out hope for improvement.

"I hate debates," he said in Des Moines last week. "I used to hate spinning in aircrafts. ... Finally I did it, and I did it enough that I finally got pretty good at it. So hold on, maybe I'll get better at debates, too."

No one doubts he's a tough campaigner. He has never lost an election -- avoiding most debates in state races -- and is the longest serving governor of Texas. He has proven a charismatic campaigner in smaller settings common in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- three states that start the nominating process and states where he must do well.

Yet some Republicans, even prominent Perry supporters, are wondering whether the Texan can survive his latest misstep.

"As far as his character, I haven't wavered on that," state Rep. Peter Silva, a member of Perry's New Hampshire steering committee, said Thursday. But he added: "You can't say this is a good thing. He shot himself in the foot."

Others were even less generous.

"It's over for him," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political strategist who ran Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign.

In an interview on Thursday, Perry said the moment wouldn't force him from the race.

"Oh, shoot, no," Perry said. "This ain't a day for quitting nothing."

Still, on Capitol Hill, Perry's brain freeze was widely regarded as a grave development for his already struggling campaign.

Sen. James Inhofe, a Perry backer, spoke with colleagues and other Perry supporters to try to stop an exodus.

"He's a human being, he just proved that last night," the Oklahoman said. "Right now, he's joking around about it and it seems to be favorably received from a lot of people I've heard from."

Yet Inhofe was still cringing.

"It was very embarrassing to Rick Perry and to others who certainly supported him, and I'm sure that many of his Republican opponents are rejoicing," said the senator.

There was an informal straw poll at a debate-watching party hosted by a prominent New Hampshire conservative, Jennifer Horn, a recent Republican congressional candidate who previously backed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's now-abandoned bid.

Horn said that of about 40 Republicans at the party, only about four said they supported Perry before the debate began. Th at was cut in half after the debate.

"That's not a scientific sample. But that do es show that people are influenced by what happens at these debat es," Horn said. "That was highly unfortunate, especially for people in New  Hampshire who know  how  strong he can be in person. It was difficult to watch."