Rick Perry's bid for the presidency may have been derailed by a single word Wednesday night: "Oops."
In what may go down as one of the most cringe-worthy moments of any modern presidential campaign, the Texas governor froze in the middle of an answer during the Republican debate in Michigan sponsored by CNBC and dealt what could be a fatal blow to his 2012 bid.
Perry, who has frequently admitted he's a poor debater, stumbled in the middle of explaining which government agencies he would eliminate as president—a softball question given the answer is part of his daily talking points on the campaign trail.
"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there? Let's see. Oh five--commerce, education and the um, um," Perry said as he struggled to name the third agency.
The governor awkwardly looked at his notes, as one of his rivals offered a lifeline. "The EPA?" someone asked.
"That's it," Perry said, but then retracted his answer.
For more than 30 seconds, Perry shuffled in place and tried to think of the agency he was missing. Finally, he said, "I can't. Oops."
You can watch video of the moment above.
Ten minutes later, Perry finally came up with the answer he was looking for--"the Department of Energy," he said--but by then it was too late. The blunder, the biggest of Perry's three month campaign, undermined the governor's efforts to regain momentum for his 2012 effort--which he admitted in the debate room afterward.
"I'm glad I had my boots on tonight, because I sure stepped in it out there," he told reporters.
But Perry's mistake also granted a lifeline to Herman Cain, whose campaign has been in crisis mode in recent days over allegations that he sexually harassed four women while he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Asked about the controversy, Cain again denied the allegations and attacked the media and his accusers.
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," Cain said in the early moments of the debate. "This country's looking for leadership, and this is why a lot of people, despite what has happened over the last nine days … [they] have voted with their dollars, and they are saying we they don't care about character assassination They care about leadership and getting this economy going and all the other problems that we face."
You can watch video of the moment below:
The debate moderators asked Romney about the Cain allegations—eliciting boos from the audience—but Romney dodged the question, and in the process ended discussion of a topic that has dominated campaign headlines for days.
Wednesday night's forum was focused on the economy, and while the questions were pointed, the candidates largely stuck to their talking points. Romney pointed to his experience in the private sector as the reason why he's in the best position to get the country back on track. Perry talked up his record as a job creator in Texas, and the other candidates each touted their individual strengths against President Obama.
Newt Gingrich at one point refused to be pulled into a more complex discussion about what he would do if Obama's health care reform was repealed. You can watch a video clip of him hedging under repeated questioning from Maria Bartiromo below:
Yet in contrast to recent debates, few of the candidates took direct aim at each other--or at Romney, who continued to frame the election as a match-up between himself and Obama, rather than a contest among the GOP candidates. At one point, Romney used a series of questions on the federal auto-industry bailouts to argue he's not a flip-flopper.
The former Massachusetts governor noted that he's been married for more than 40 years to the same woman, attended the same church for years and held his last job at Bain Capital for more than 20 years. "I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," he argued. "I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do."
Yet throughout the debate, Romney and the other candidates offered little in the way of specifics about how they would actually create jobs--each argued that rolling back taxes would help stimulate the economy and thus create jobs.
Asked about the housing crisis, Romney admitted he didn't have a specific plan.
"The best thing you can do for housing is get the economy going again," Romney said. "What won't work is what the president has done."
Rachel Rose Hartman contributed reporting from Michigan.
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