Herman Cain came into the CNBC debate in Michigan with everything to lose. His front-runner status, viability, and relevance were in peril. His political obituary was being written. And Rick Perry seemed primed to gain from the cloud of alleged past “inappropriate behavior” hanging over Cain and his campaign.
With just one word, Perry again turned what has been an unpredictable and oftentimes absurdly crazy primary season on its head again.
After saying during the debate that he would do away with three agencies in the federal government, Perry named the Department of Education and the Commerce Department but could not name the third.
Moderator John Harwood asked Perry if he were really serious about not remembering the other department he wanted to eliminate.
Ron Paul tried to give Perry a lifeline and suggested the Environmental Protection Agency. Perry waffled on that, first agreeing and then saying that wasn’t the agency he had in mind.
And then, Perry simply said this: “The third agency of government I would do away with … Education, the Commerce. And let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t … Oops.”
After the debate, Perry came into a room full of reporters and said, “I’m glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight.”
The next debate is in South Carolina on Saturday. With Europe’s debt crisis and the unspeakable events occurring at Penn State University, Perry’s unbelievable brain freeze that left political historians scrambling to find a historical comparison to Perry’s moment of ineptness on a debate stage will not get the immediate saturation it might have received in another news cycle.
Perry’s moment, however, will likely be an albatross around his campaign’s neck as they try to climb back into the top-tier of candidates to be Romney’s chief challenger.
During the debate, Cain spoke credibly about 9-9-9 and was not pressed save for a round of questioning about the past allegations of “inappropriate behavior” swirling around his campaign. And the attention that will be given to Perry’s mishap will deflect some of the attention from Cain. Ron Paul continued to espouse his libertarian beliefs that has given him a steady base of support that makes up about 12-15% of the electorate. Jon Huntsman spoke about his record as Gov. of Utah–where he passed a successful flat tax–and his economic plan that has been called the most “conservative” and “pro-growth” plan put out by any candidate. Newt Gingrich attacked the moderators for giving candidates merely 30 seconds to discuss complex policy ideas and harangued the mainstream media for their lack of historical knowledge while fluently answering every debate question and leading many debate watchers to believe he may be the best candidate Republicans could put up against Obama.
Romney was steady and did nothing to lose his base of support and may have won over a few more supporters from the moderate wing of the GOP with his business-like performance that made him seem competent and, perhaps more importantly, prepared.
Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann tried their best to elbow their way into the conversation but were given few opportunities to showcase their strengths and speak to what would be their core supporters: Social conservative voters in Iowa.
This debate will be remembered for Perry’s dumbfounding moment of ineptitude.
And while many political observers will write that Perry’s candidacy ended Wednesday, one would be remiss not to note that Gingrich’s obituary was written two months ago.
Perry did not do himself any favors. But the only certainty in this election cycle is that nothing is certain, save for the 25% of the primary electorate that supports Romney, the 13% that supports Paul and the 100% that is against President Obama.