Gov. Rick Perry turned to self-deprecating humor Thursday to help overcome an embarrassing debate gaffe, but analysts said the potential impact on his struggling campaign is deadly serious.
Perry, who was unable to remember one of three federal agencies he would target for elimination, agreed to deliver the Top Ten list on the CBS' Late Show With David Letterman. And his campaign, in the political equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons, turned the memory lapse into a lighthearted fundraising appeal by asking supporters to submit a $5 contribution with the name of every federal agency they would like to forget.
The onetime Republican front-runner appeared on morning news shows to dismiss speculation that his stumble in the Republican debate in Michigan on Wednesday would drive him out of the race. He vowed to forge ahead with his core message of job creation and limited government and remained committed to participating in the next Republican debate, in South Carolina on Saturday night.
"Obviously I stepped in it," Perry told CNN in a damage control offensive that began shortly after the debate. He added: "I have my moment of humor with it and I press on and understand that there are a lot more serious things facing this country than whether or not I could remember the Department of Energy at an inappropriate time."
Declared Perry: "This ain't a day for quitting nothing."
But Perry's stumble, coming on top of poor performances in earlier debates and a hyperanimated speech in New Hampshire, dominated post-debate news coverage throughout the day Thursday as analysts delivered a litany of withering critiques with terms such as "brain freeze," "Chernobyl-style meltdown" and "slow-motion brain wreck."
Some declared the Perry campaign effectively dead while others said the governor, with his well-financed campaign organization, could remain in the race but was probably permanently sidelined as a genuine contender.
'Dead man walking'
"Perry dug his own grave last night," said Republican consultant Mark McKinnon of Austin, who served as a campaign adviser to former President George W. Bush. "He may continue on through Iowa to try and save some face. But he's a dead man walking."
Perry, who is waging his first national campaign after more than a quarter-century in Texas politics, has steadily dropped in the polls after a brief stint as Republican front-runner. He was counting on Wednesday's debate -- his sixth since entering the race in mid-August -- to tout his evolving economic plan and re-energize his campaign. But he went blank midway through the event as he began naming three agencies on his hit list.
"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education, and the ... what's the third one, there? Let's see." He then acknowledged that he couldn't remember the third one, adding, "Oops."
Experts said many voters will likely sympathize with the campaign's depiction of the gaffe as a human mistake that virtually anyone could make. But, at the same time, they said, Perry muffed his own talking points and raised doubts about his ability to go toe-to-toe in a debate against President Barack Obama or to deal with foreign leaders should he become president.
The extent of any damage to the campaign will become more apparent with new polls and in Perry's ability to continue raising money. Perry amassed more than $17 million in seven weeks to become the third-biggest fundraiser in the presidential race after Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a dominant contender for the Republican nomination.
"A gaffe like that has the potential to stop the flow of money into Gov. Perry's war chest," said Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign spending. "The larger the gaffe, the greater the potential for the flow of money to stop. That said, Gov. Perry's supporters may also be willing to forgive -- or overlook -- his forgetfulness onstage last night."
Donors still 'excited'
Perry has set his sights on a strong showing in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of his major fundraisers, said donors "remain very excited about the Perry campaign," predicting that fallout from the debate will have no significant effect on fundraising or the governor's candidacy.
"He has come out very, very strong why he should be the Republican nominee, and a minor debate gaffe is not a defining moment about who would be the best president," Abbott said.
The Republican attorney general said he has already surpassed his own fundraising target for Perry with $248,000 in pledges, including $180,000 in donations that have gone into the campaign treasury.
Henry Barbour, a Mississippi consultant who has agreed to raise $500,000 for the Perry campaign, conceded that the memory lapse was "embarrassing" but said he believes that "there is still ample time for him to make his case about why he should be president. I'm sure that last night is not going to help but what is important is how you respond to adversity."
In an overnight e-mail to supporters, Team Perry said the Texas governor was the not first politician to make a verbal stumble, noting that "We've all had human moments." The e-mail also asked supporters to send in the names of federal agencies they would like to forget, along with a $5 donation for each one.
"We hope you have a long list," the campaign said. "And we promise we will write down every last idea. So we don't forget."
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