Perry has debate 'oops'; crowd cheers Cain in face of harassment allegations

Rick Perry struggled to remember which federal agencies he would cut, Herman Cain had the crowd's support in dealing with sexual harassment allegations, and Mitt Romney sailed through Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate.

The debate, hosted by CNBC News in Rochester, Mich., was billed as a discussion on economics, but it's the other moments the night will be remembered for, particularly a stumble by Perry.

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The Texas governor has a reputation for not being a strong debater, and that was reinforced Wednesday night with a gaffe that could be a campaign-ender.

After promising to close three government agencies when he became president, Perry named two but failed to come up with the third.

"It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone," Perry said. "Commerce, Education and, the, uh, what’s the third one ... "

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) offered some help: "Five, you have five."

"Oh, five, OK," Perry replied. "So: Commerce, Education and the … " He again drew a blank.


CNBC contributor John Harwood, one of the debate moderators, suggested the Environmental Protection Agency, to cheers and applause from the crowd.

"EPA, there we go," Perry said with a laugh.

Harwood asked Perry whether the EPA was the third agency.

"No, sir, we’re talking about the agencies of government ... EPA needs to be rebuilt, there’s no doubt about that," Perry responded.

"But you can’t name the third one?" Harwood asked.

"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 replied. "Sorry. Oops."

About 10 minutes later, Perry finally remembered and offered his response. "And by the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago," he said.

Perry and his staff seemed to recognize they stumbled.

"I'm glad I have my boots on, because I stepped in it tonight," Perry said in the spin room after the debate, according to reports.

And Ray Sullivan, the campaign's communication director, went on CNBC to address the gaffe.

"We had a stumble of style, not substance," he said. "Every modern president has had a gaffe.

"We'll get through this and get back on the issues," he addded.

Even his rivals expressed some sympathy.

"That was a tough moment. I think we all recognize that was a moment none of us would want to go through," Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said after the debate in an interview on CNBC. "I felt for him."

Perry has slid in the polls, largely because of a series of weak debate performances, and needed a strong performance Wednesday to help turn around his campaign. With this moment, he failed that test — and might have disqualified himself in the minds of some voters who, worried about the charges against Cain, might have given Perry another look.

Cain, meanwhile, got the first question of the night — but it wasn't about the sexual harassment allegations that have engulfed his campaign. That question didn't come until 20 minutes in, and the crowd booed moderator Maria Bartiromo when she asked about it.

And when Cain described the issue as “character assassination,” the audience applauded heartily.

"I value my character and my integrity more than anything else in the world, and for every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are thousands who could say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain," he said to applause.

The audience’s reaction shows that Cain hasn't lost the support of many Republicans who view the reports with a high level of skepticism. He has slipped in the polls a bit as more details on the issue have emerged, but it was clear that the GOP audience was sick and tired of hearing discussion of the issue.

Romney was then asked whether, as CEO of a company, he would fire someone facing the same allegations, leading the crowd to erupt into another chorus of boos. Romney ducked the answer. "Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions. He just did," he said to cheers. 

No other Republican candidate brought up the issue for the rest of the night.

Cain had a mostly error-free debate, but might have earned himself some more attention when he referred to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as “Princess Nancy,” a comment that earned laughs and applause from the audience but was criticized by some, including Dana Perino, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush.

He was responding to a question about how he would replace the Obama administration’s healthcare law.

“The legislation has already been written — H.R. 3000,” Cain said. “In the previous Congress it was H.R. 3400, and what that does — it’s already been written. We didn’t hear about it in the previous Congress because Princess Nancy sent it to committee and it stayed there, it never came out.”

After the debate, Cain was asked about the appropriateness of the remark in light of the sexual harassment allegations that have plagued him.

"That was a statement I probably should not have made, but I was trying to make a point," he said in an interview on CNBC.

Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) were the big winners of the night, largely because they stayed on message and did not make any unforced errors.

The former Massachusetts governor avoided any direct confrontations with the other candidates and managed to stay above the fray, his strategy since the outset of the campaign. He received a warm welcome from his home-state crowd. Romney's father was governor of the state, and Romney won it in the 2008 GOP primary.

Gingrich, who has seen a slow and steady ascent in the polls and now leads Perry in most national surveys, delivered another debate performance that was at times punchy and professorial.

He drew applause by calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve and by criticizing the media, a favorite target of his. This time it was because the debate moderators asked the candidates to sum up their ideas for healthcare reform in 30 seconds. He also drew laughs by making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

“Who’s going to pay for the park you’re occupying if there are no businesses making a profit?” Gingrich asked rhetorically.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) made a play for blue-collar workers by promising he would be “laser beam-focused” on helping the manufacturing industry and criticizing the other candidates for failing to come up with solutions to America’s sagging manufacturing sector. He made no errors but was not a major part of the conversation, unlike in some previous debates where he inserted himself into the conversation and effectively needled candidates, including Perry and Romney, on policy.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Paul and Bachmann also had fair debate performances. None made any mistakes, but none managed to create the attention-grabbing moment that would turn into headlines the next day and create some traction for their campaigns.