BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (AP) – Rick Perry says he “stepped in it” during Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, but insisted that it won’t force him out of the presidential race.
“Oh, shoot, no,” Perry told The Associated Press Thursday morning, a day after he stood on stage unable to remember the third federal department he would cut. He was asked if his campaign, struggling to regain traction, could survive. “This ain’t a day for quitting nothing.”
Perry says others have made similar mistakes and that the screw up will humanize him. “The president of the United States said there were 57 states one time. Everybody makes mistakes,” he said.
With a blitz of early morning interviews and TV appearances, the Texas governor was looking to stem any fallout Thursday from a major misstep he made the night before during a GOP presidential debate.
In Wednesday debate, Perry said he would eliminate three federal agencies but struggled to name them.
“Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” the Texas governor said.
Perry’s rivals tried to bail him out, suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency.
“EPA, there you go,” Perry said, seemingly taking their word for it.
But that wasn’t it. And when pressed, the candidate drew another blank.
“Seriously?” moderator John Harwood, one of the CNBC debate hosts, asked. “You can’t name the third one?”
“The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, the Commerce. And let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t,” Perry said. “Oops.”
Later in the debate, Perry revisited the question and said he meant to call for the elimination of the Energy Department.
On Thursday, Perry said he just couldn’t think of it.
“There were so many federal agencies that come to mind, that I want to get rid of, that the Energy Department would not come out,” he said in an interview taped for ABC’s Good Morning America.
In an appearance on the Fox News Channel, Perry said, “If anybody’s looking for the slickest politician or the smoothest debater, I readily admit I’m not that person. But what Americans do know is that my committed conservative values has helped lead one of the most influential states in this nation for the last 10 years.”
And on NBC’s “Today” show, Perry seemed to try to make the best of the gaffe, telling an interviewer that forgetting the names of all the agencies he believes should be eliminated makes the “core point” of his campaign — that there are too many agencies.
The immediate fallout has been brutal — at least on Twitter.
“Perry response will be on highlight reels for years to come,” business legend Jack Welch tweeted.
“Off screen, Dr. (Ron) Paul is sadly administering the last rites to Rick Perry,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy added. “Dr. Paul filling out paperwork as they haul Perry away. He’s ruling it a suicide.”
“Rick Perry just lost the debate. And the entire election. You only had to name three,” Tim Albrecht, the top spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is unaligned in the GOP race, tweeted from his personal account.
After the debate, Perry appeared to be in damage control mode.
He’s already blasted an email out to his supporters asking them, “what part of the Federal Government would you like to forget about the most?” His website now asks supporters to vote for one.
In dramatic fashion, he bee-lined it to the “spin room” where a crush of reporters were gathered to interview campaign surrogates — and he immediately indicated that he knew he had made a really bad mistake. The first words out of his mouth as reporters crowded around: “I’m glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight.”
Still, Perry almost seemed to minimize the impact, adding: “People understand that it is our conservative principles that matter.”
“We all felt very bad for him,” Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman also running for the nomination, said after the debate, calling the moment uncomfortable.
The next few days will shed light on whether voters care about the misstep — and punish him for it.
Over the past two weeks, Perry has sought to prove he’s still a credible challenger to Mitt Romney by rolling out detailed policy proposals. But he’s found himself dogged by suggestions that he had been drinking or taking drugs when he gave an animated speech in New Hampshire. It went viral online, prompting Perry to state that he was not, in fact, under the influence of a substance.
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” did a Perry parody last weekend that was widely viewed.
In recent days, the candidate started to take his message directly to the voters by running sunny biographical television ads in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s an effort to reintroduce himself to Republican primary voters in a safer setting that circumvents the news media.
Wednesday’s was the latest tough debate for the GOP candidate who has struggled in the national spotlight since entering the race in August, the last time he was at the top of polls. His standing has fallen throughout the fall, and he’s fighting to gain ground less than two months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.
He has committed to four more debates in a year when the GOP electorate is clearly tuned into them, but his advisers are considering skipping future ones.
Presidential debates have offered pivotal moments for decades, from Al Gore’s audible sighs in 2000 to Michael Dukakis’ tepid answer about the death penalty in 1988.
A statement by Gerald Ford in a 1976 presidential debate is among the most memorable, however. Ford famously baffled audiences when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Later pressed by the moderator, he refused to back down. The moment haunted the rest of his losing campaign.
Publicly, Perry aides sought to downplay Wednesday night’s shaky answer.
“We had a stumble of style and not substance,” insisted Ray Sullivan, Perry’s top communications adviser. “He still named two more agencies than this president” would eliminate.
Perry had no public schedule on Thursday and planned to raise money privately at events in Tennessee. His next public campaign stops were scheduled in South Carolina on Friday — a day before yet another debate.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)