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Perry Has An 'Oops' Moment At GOP's Mich. Debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was searching for the words "Department of Energy" during the CNBC debate Wednesday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Paul Sancya
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was searching for the words "Department of Energy" during the CNBC debate Wednesday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Presidential hopefuls and voters alike sometimes get upset about so-called gotcha questions from reporters that seem designed to embarrass contenders. But Wednesday night's Republican debate outside Detroit demonstrated how some candidates have done a perfectly good job of "getting" themselves.

The debate had some dramatic moments — including one excruciating moment that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would probably like to forget. The comments focused on the economy and jobs, but there were also questions about the sexual harassment allegations against front-runner Herman Cain.

Sponsored by the business channel CNBC, the event got under way without opening statements; the CNBC anchors went right into questions. The first was about the financial turmoil in Italy and what should be done to keep U.S. markets from being dragged down further as a result.

Cain responded first, pointing blame at President Obama. The U.S. must make sure its currency is "sound," he said. "A dollar must be a dollar when we wake up in the morning, just like 60 minutes is an hour, a dollar must be a dollar."

Next was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: "There will be some who say that banks here in the U.S. that have Italian debt, that we have to save them as well. My view is no, no, no. We do not need to step in to help banks in Europe or here in the U.S."

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman added: "If you want a window into what this country's going to look like in the future if we don't get on top of our debt, you're seeing it play out in Europe right now."

Weighing In On Bailouts

This being Michigan, the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler was next on the agenda. Today, those companies are making money again. Many thousands of jobs were saved.

But that wasn't the bottom line for Romney, who was born in Michigan. His father, a former Michigan governor, once ran a car company. But Romney insists that the bailout was a bad idea.

"My view with regards to the bailout is whether it was Bush or Obama, it was the wrong way to go," he said. "I said from the beginning, they should go through a managed bankruptcy process — a private bankruptcy process."

That's a position that could hurt Romney in Michigan if he's the nominee. But it's a common view among these GOP hopefuls.

Perry added, "We are not going to pick winners and losers from Washington, D.C. ... We're going to trust capital markets and private sector and let consumers pick winners and losers."

'Character Issues'

CNBC's Maria Bartiromo then broached the subject that has dominated the campaign for more than a week — the allegations of sexual harassment against Cain. There were boos in the audience when the subject was mentioned.

"You know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues," Bartiromo said. "Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?"

Cain replied: "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," and the crowd applauded.

The other candidates did not weigh in. Instead, the questions shifted back to the economy.

Perry's Memory Lapse

Then, well into the second hour of the debate, Perry started talking about the burdens of regulations. He said three federal departments could be completely eliminated: Education, Commerce and — he couldn't remember the third.

"The third agency of government I would do away with ... let's see," he said. "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."

He struggled to think of it for more than a minute, and other candidates offered suggestions. But it was not until Perry was asked a different question later on that he remembered he had wanted to finger the Energy Department.

The lapse was painfully awkward for Perry and many of those watching. Perry was once leading the field with 30 percent in the polls, but weak showings in the debates have knocked him down to 10 percent or less.

As soon as the debate ended, Perry himself did damage control — walking into the press room to spin his own performance.

"Governor, what happened in there?" one reporter asked.

Perry replied: "I stepped in it, man. Yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was."

As for his future as a candidate, Perry insisted he's not done.

"I'll be in South Carolina on Saturday, and hopefully I'll remember the Energy Department. Thank you all."

Each of this campaign's 10 or so debates has been intriguing in its own way. The next one is set for Saturday in South Carolina.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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