An otherwise unremarkable debate marked for its civility took a memorable turn halfway through -- and for all the wrong reasons for Rick Perry.
The Texas governor couldn't remember one of the three federal departments he proposes eliminating, stumbling for nearly a minute as he tried to recall which one it was.
"It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone," he said. "Commerce, Education, and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see."
He apologized, even audibly saying "oops." Later, he remembered the third agency was the Department of Energy, but the damage had been done. "We all felt very bad for him," one of his rivals, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said in a post-debate interview on CNBC. In the spin room, Perry acknowledged to reporters: "I sure stepped in it."
Perry's gaffe notwithstanding, the debate ostensibly was about the economy. As the Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday in Michigan, the day’s market slide – the Dow Jones closing down 389 points – offered a sharp reminder of the local economic backdrop.
General Motors stock fell nearly 11 percent during the day. Ford Motor Company dropped almost 5 percent.
It was the first time the Republican candidates had met since Oct. 18 in Las Vegas, a debate memorable for the testy exchange between Perry and Mitt Romney over Romney’s extended employment of a landscaping firm that employed illegal immigrants. Since then, Perry has launched ads in Iowa but failed to recover significantly in the polls, and allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain have dominated political news for the last 10 days.
Perry was the night’s clear loser and Romney delivered another strong performance befitting his front-runner status. But Cain may have been the night’s biggest winner by not losing. Staggered by mounting allegations of sexual harassment, the Georgia businessman emerged with no fresh blemishes, essentially unscathed and, in fact, gifted with a reprieve from the brutal 10 days he has endured. The debate’s overarching topic – the economy – helped steer the conversation from his alleged behavior, and Perry’s head-over-heels tumble over a simple answer will dominate much of the media coverage.
In fact, when Cain appeared on CNBC shortly after the debate ended, the first question he was asked was whether Perry had destroyed his candidacy. “I wouldn’t say that. The American people can be very forgiving,” Cain said.
During the debate, Cain gave an answer to a question about the allegations that essentially hewed to his previously stated talking points, and kept pushing his tax policy package. In his post-game interview, Cain said, “As far as me staying focused, yes, it’s been a rough 10 days, but guess what? The American people have voted, and they have contacted us, and they have voted with their dollars.”
His lone apparent slip-up came when, during a health care segment of the debate, he derisively referred to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy.” A show of disrespect toward one of the nation’s most prominent and powerful women was probably particularly poorly timed given the controversy enveloping Cain, one he walked back during the post-debate appearance. “That was a statement I probably should not have made,” he said.
Nonetheless, Cain was chipper. "We are back on track and back on message," he said.
The bellicosity of the last Republican presidential debate, three weeks ago in Las Vegas gave way to a much more congenial session in Michigan. Gone were the acrid exchanges between candidates, replaced with statements of agreement on policy. No shoulder touches, either. If the emotional quotient injected into the race by the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain has altered anything among the candidates, it appears to have provided a caution flag against combustibility. Rick Santorum lightly dinged Mitt Romney over the latter’s Massachusetts health care law, but other than that, the only tension during the debate's first 75 minutes erupted between the candidates and their reporter questioners.
In what might go down as one of the more embarrassing moments in presidential campaign history, Perry cemented his reputation as a poor debater when he blanked about one of the three federal departments he wants to slash.
The Texas governor began by naming the Commerce Department and the Department of Education, but he stopped there.
"I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the -- what's the third one there?" he asked, visibly embarrassed. "Let's see."
Somebody suggested Perry was thinking about the Environmental Protection Agency. But moderator John Harwood intervened.
"You can't name the third one?" Harwood asked.
Perry repeated he would disband the departments of Education and Commerce.
"And, let's see," he said. "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry."
On his next turn speaking, Perry offered: "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for." Hmm. The governor of Texas forgets energy?
Poor debate performances are credited with sinking Perry’s campaign after he initially soared in the polls, but Tuesday’s gaffe was his worst.
Cain on sexual harassment
At the outset of the debate, moderator Maria Bartiromo promised that it would focus "almost exclusively" on the economy. The inevitable detour, which came less than 30 minutes into the debate, prompted boos from the audience. When she asked Cain about the sexual harassment charges against him, the embattled candidate reiterated his denials.
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” said Cain, responding to a question over whether voters should support him after four women have accused him of sexual harassment.
“I valued my character and my integrity more than anything else,” he added. “And for every one person that comes forward with false accusations, there are thousands who say none of that sort of action came from Herman Cain.”
It was a characteristic Cain response since the news of the scandal broke last week – total refutation of any wrongdoing while calling his accusers liars. And the crowd seemed to support him. They cheered wildly after his responses.
Cain got an assist from Romney, kind of. Asked whether he would fire Cain, Romney stuttered before cat-calls from the audience rained on stage. He then said it would be up to the American people to make that judgment – not him.
Romney on the spot
Moderator Harwood hit Romney head-on with the central question of Romney’s campaign: whether Romney’s political positions are rooted in something more deeply than electoral convenience. His initial question was of Romney’s seeming flip-flop over the auto industry’s plight, from imploring Washington to get involved, to penning a famous op-ed entitled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” after the 2008 election, to later appearing to soft-pedal that approach.
Romney pivoted to his upbringing in Michigan, where his father was governor, then reiterated criticism of government intervention in the automakers’ plight. “It was the wrong way to go. I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process,” Romney said, adding, “My plan, we would have had a private-sector bailout, with a private-sector restructuring … as opposed to government playing its heavy hand.”
Harwood followed up, calling Romney’s apparent ideological flexibility “an issue of character.” Romney replied, “I think people understand I'm a man of steadiness and constancy." As evidence, he cited the fact he has been married to the same woman for 42 years and belonged to the same church – the Mormon church – his entire life, and worked for the same company, Bain Capital, for 25 years.
Romney’s aggressive stand toward China – proposing to brand the nation a currency manipulator and hitting it with tariffs on imports subsidized by the manipulated yuan – drew a pandering charge from Huntsman, who earlier this year completed a tour as the U.S. ambassador to Beijing.
“China is, on almost every dimension, cheating. We’ve got to recognize that,” Romney said, addressing one of the policy stances that distinguishes him from the field and prompts uneasiness in business circles.
Huntsman warned of “a trade war” with dueling tariffs. “You can throw out applause lines … I’ve said it before that I think that policy is one of simply pandering,” Huntsman said.
Romney pivoted to his private-sector experience, saying, “I understand free trade, I like free trade … But I’ve also seen predatory pricing.”
The candidates’ answers to questions about housing policy revealed two things: first, the universal antipathy toward government involvement in the economy, regardless of the size of the problem. All of the Republican hopefuls bristled at the idea of government intervention, embodied in the twin GOP hobgoblins of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac complex. If Dodd-Frank were repealed, Newt Gingrich said, “You’d see the housing market start to improve overnight. Dodd-Frank kills small banks, it kills small business.”When CNBC reporter Steve Liesman pressed Romney on his stated belief that the prudent route on housing was to allow struggling homeowners go into foreclosure at the mercy of the market, Romney replied, “And exactly what would you do instead … have the federal government go out and buy all the homes in America?”
Rebecca Kaplan contributed. contributed to this article.