WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry tried Thursday to convince the country he was in on the joke after his disastrous debate performance while even his supporters worried aloud about the damage to his already hobbling campaign.
Perry didn’t try to sugarcoat the fallout from his minute-long stammer that crystalized concerns that he is not up for the job. Instead, he spent the day on a media blitz trying to laugh about the Wednesday evening debate where he struggled embarrassingly to remember one of the three federal departments he wants to abolish, ending with a grinning, “Oops.”
He even appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to offer the night’s Top Ten List of excuses for the debate.
“Hey, listen. You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude,” Perry chuckled during his segment with the comedian.
The minute-long exchange was replayed throughout the day and into the evening on television, and it has already been labeled one of the worst debate blunders in recent memory.
“That’s pretty brutal isn’t it?” Perry said on Fox News, blitzing the airwaves hoping to provide alternative video. “I stepped in it. I think some of it is still stuck on my feet.”
He doesn’t have much time to clean up. There are fewer than eight weeks until the first nominating contests start and voters are looking for the best candidate to go head-to-head against President Barack Obama.
“It’s something he needs to address pretty quickly,” said uncommitted Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an early primary state. But he said Perry has time and a key survival tool: money.
Perry reported some $15 million banked during his most recent fundraising period. His advisers said they had enough cash on hand to get them through South Carolina.
If Perry isn’t able to log some victories by that point, he’s got bigger problems than a 54-second piece of an otherwise forgettable debate.
Perry acknowledged it was a tough moment as he flailed during the televised debate. In the episode, Perry said he would eliminate three federal agencies, starting with Commerce and Education. He struggled to name the third and had to point to Energy later in the debate to round out his trio. Perry squirmed while his opponents and the audience laughed and debate moderator John Harwood incredulously said, “You can’t name the third one?”
“It wasn’t even on the tip of my tongue,” Perry said.
Perry has been the first to acknowledge he’s a terrible debater but has hoped he would improve.
“I hate debates,” he said in Des Moines last week. “I used to hate spinning in aircrafts. ... Finally I did it, and I did it enough that I finally got pretty good at it. So hold on, maybe I’ll get better at debates, too.”
Maybe it won’t matter.
Perry is a tough campaigner. He has never lost and election — and has avoided debating in state races — and is the longest serving governor of Texas. He is a has proven a charismatic campaigner in smaller settings common in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — three states that start the nominating process and three states where he must do well.
Yet some Republicans, even prominent Perry supporters, were wondering whether the Texan can survive his latest misstep.
“As far as his character, I haven’t waivered on that,” state Rep. Peter Silva, a member of Perry’s New Hampshire steering committee, said Thursday, but added: “You can’t say this is a good thing. He shot himself in the foot.”
Others weren’t as generous.
“It’s over for him,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political strategist who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign.
But in an interview with The Associated Press early Thursday, Perry said the moment wouldn’t force him from the race.
“Oh, shoot, no,” Perry said. “This ain’t a day for quitting nothing.”
Still, the extended exchange will provide easy fodder for attack ads..
On Capitol Hill, Perry’s brain freeze was widely regarded as a grave development for his already struggling campaign. In private, Republicans were wondering if they had just seen the beginning of the end for Perry.
Sen. James Inhofe, a Perry backer, phoned his colleagues to downplay the exchange and called Perry’s supporters to try to stop an exodus.
“He’s a human being, he just proved that last night,” the Oklahoman said. “Right now, he’s joking around about it and it seems to be favorably received from a lot of people I’ve heard from.”
Yet Inhofe was still cringing.
“It was very embarrassing to Rick Perry and to others who certainly supported him, and I’m sure that many of his Republican opponents are rejoicing,” said Inhofe.
Perry did even worse in an informal straw poll at a debate-watching party hosted by prominent New Hampshire conservative, Jennifer Horn, a recent Republican congressional candidate who previously backed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s now-abandoned bid.
Horn said that of about 40 Republicans at the party, only about four said they supported Perry before the debate began. That already-small number was cut in half after the debate.
“That’s not a scientific sample. But that does show that people are influenced by what happens at these debates,” Horn said. “That was highly unfortunate, especially for people in New Hampshire who know how strong he can be in person. It was difficult to watch.”
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.