Is Perry Toast After Flubbed Debate Line?

A once-promising candidacy may be over after an embarrassing debate flub.

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In the early debates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took steady aim at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, attacking his record on issues like immigration and job creation. Turns out, that was wasted energy. On Tuesday, the GOP candidates mostly held their fire, and Perry self-destructed on his own.

In the midst of touting talking points about slashing government during the GOP presidential candidate debate sponsored by the cable network CNBC, Perry promised to eliminate three government agencies. After pledging to shut down the departments of Commerce and Education, Perry fumbled when trying to remember the third one. And he never did find it—at least, not until after a few other questions for other candidates gave him time to remember that the third department on the chopping block was Energy. "Oops," Perry said after the senior moment. Ridding those three departments isn't controversial, at least among Republicans. But his inability to recall the three departments negated whatever validity there was to his argument. Perry tried to make light of the flub, writing "Really glad I wore my boots 2nite because I stepped in it out there" on his Twitter account. He finished: "I did still name 2 agencies to eliminate. Obama has never done that!"

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Up until then, Perry had a reasonably decent night during a low-key, no-frills debate. There were no angry denunciations or cross-examinations between candidates. About the tensest moment came when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrangled with one of the debate moderators, Maria Bartiromo, over the issue of health care. But with one missed answer, Perry seemed to confirm all of the doubts that have built during his three month-old campaign—that he isn't ready for prime-time scrutiny and he doesn't have the intellectual heft to lead the party and take back the White House.To freeze up under the spotlights is only human, but being a president requires someone to be superhuman. "This adds to the whole question around about Governor Perry's performances at debates," says Terry Nelson, a Republican campaign operative and former advisor for Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign. "That will be the highlight of his night, and that will be what people will talk about. Obviously, no one wants to have a debate like that."

Voters may sympathize, and they may also rally around him as he faces increasing media scrutiny and calls to drop out of the race. But Perry doesn't just need votes, he also needs support from donors and Republican organizers whose wariness about Perry's political skills has turned into an all-out panic. "He can't get the nomination if GOP activists have zero confidence in his ability to debate the President," one Republican activist says. Already Perry's campaign was on life support as doubters questioned his debate performances and sparse policy details. A video of a New Hampshire speech made Perry look unfocused and unhinged, and whether it was deceptively edited or not, underscored that he isn't used to this level of scrutiny. If tonight's debate kills Perry's chances, as some political observers speculate, then it would leave an easy path to the nomination for Romney with businessman Herman Cain hobbled by scandal. Wednesday night may be remembered as the night that Romney seized the nomination.

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Can one flubbed line ruin a presidential campaign? It depends on the campaign, and the line. President Gerald Ford falsely claimed that Poland wasn't under Soviet occupation during the 1976 debate, confirming the reputation to many that he was an out-of-touch leader. There are plenty of other infamous moments, such as Vice President Al Gore's line about creating the Internet. It's hard to know exactly how much any of these single incidents mattered, but they all fed into an overall image which hobbled their campaigns.

In the spin room after the debate, Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan told CNBC the flub was a "an error in style, not substance." But the style error, as Sullivan would put it, could only add to doubts that Perry has any grasp on the substance.