Rick Perry loves his cowboy boots, but it’s not often he gets to use them as a prop in trying to revive his faltering presidential campaign.
"I'm glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight," he told reporters immediately after Wednesday night’s GOP debate. At this point in the night everybody already knew the main headline was going to be his inability to remember one of his own major talking points about cutting the size of the federal government.
And sure enough, political analysts and Republican players in the game were quick to weigh in.
“It’s hard to overstate how badly damaged Rick Perry is after the debate, one in which he overall performed more or less well – save for about 50 seconds,” wrote Maggie Haberman at Politco.com. “That was how long it took the Texas governor to concede he couldn’t recall the third federal agency he’d eliminate as president.”
(Mr. Perry had mentioned the Commerce and Education Departments, but couldn’t remember the Energy Department. “EPA?” chimed in Ron Paul, trying to be helpful. Nope, that wasn’t it, said Perry, struggling.)
“To my memory, Perry's forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate,” tweeted Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
There was sorrow in the response from conservatives looking for the best candidate to oust President Obama.
“I thought Perry would get better after his first debate,” wrote Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review. “I was wrong. I thought he couldn’t do worse than his last few debate performances. I was wrong. His blank moment on the three cabinet agencies was very uncomfortable to watch. It could happen to any of us, but having it happen to him, on this stage, was devastating.”
It was a moment, some reporters later said, when they felt genuine sympathy for Perry. And when the hard-boiled press begins to feel sorry for you, you know you’re in trouble.
Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for the New York Times, notes that Perry’s stock on the betting market Intrade dropped in half. “Tabbed as having about a 9 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination before the debate, the market revised his odds downward to 4 percent just moments after the gaffe.”
“This seems like a sensible enough reaction,” Silver writes. “The primary debates are not watched by all that many people, but the big moments are replayed for days afterward by the news networks and on the Web. It will reinforce some core negative perceptions about Mr. Perry: that he is a bad debater, that he is a lightweight, and that he is someone who is not quite ready for prime time.”
Just as important (maybe more so), Perry’s stumble already seems to be having a negative impact on his fundraising potential – what Jesse Unruh, the “Big Daddy” of California politics, once called “the mother’s milk of politics.”
One of Perry’s top fundraisers emailed the Washington Post: “Perry campaign is over. Time for him to go home and refocus on being governor of Texas. Really unfortunate. His policies are a solid roadmap for the economy. But, clearly he can’t articulate them in a coherent way.”
(Herman Cain may have been grateful that Perry’s gaffe was getting all the attention. In the debate, he had referred to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” – probably not a good idea for a man accused by at least four women of sexual harassment. He later apologized for what many took to be borderline sexism.)
For his part, Perry hit the morning-after TV news shows pledging to get beyond “a human mistake.”
"Any time you're standing in front of however many million people we were and you have a loss of train of thought, sure. It impacts you,” he said on on CBS' "The Early Show." “But the fact is one error is not going to make or break a campaign.”
Meanwhile, his campaign is trying to turn a big lemon into lemonade. Perry’s supporters got this early morning email:
“While the media froths over this all too human moment, we thought we would take this opportunity to ask your help in doing something much more constructive: write us to let us know what federal agency you would most like to forget.
“Is it the EPA and its job-killing zealots? The NLRB and its czar-like dictates? The edu-crats at the Department of Education who aim to control your local curriculum?
“Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you are on twitter join us in using a new twitter hashtag: #forgetmenot. And, if you could, throw in a $5 contribution for every agency you would like to forget. We hope you have a long list. And we promise we will write down every last idea. So we don’t forget.”
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