That's the question coming out of the CNBC debate in Michigan, thanks to the Texas governor's epic stumble
Most campaign debates leave the viewer with an array of interesting moments to chew over, analyze and rehash. But after Wednesday's debate, there was just one.
Rick Perry seemed to be on a roll with a smooth, fluent answer about job creation in Texas when, all of a sudden, he hit a snag. He had turned to his fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul, to explain that, like Paul, he wanted to slash whole agencies from the federal government. There were three, he said: "Commerce, Education and the, um, uh, what's the third one there, let's see," he said, pointing a finger at his head like a pistol.
Paul suggested it should actually be five agencies, the number axed from the bureaucracy under Paul's economic plan. The elderly congressman waved his right hand with all five fingers outstretched, clawlike.
"Oh, five, OK," Perry said, grinning. "So Commerce, Education and, uh, the, uh, um, uh..."
"EPA?" suggested the helpful moderator, John Harwood.
"EPA! There you go!" Perry said, laughing. But it wasn't over.
"Seriously, is EPA the one you were talking about?" Harwood pressed.
"No sir, no sir," Perry said, digging himself dramatically deeper into his memory hole. "We were talking about the, uh, agencies of government. EPA needs to be rebuilt. There's no doubt about that."
"But you can't name the third one?" said Harwood.
"The third agency of government I would do away with -- the Education, the, uh, Commerce and, let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."
A collective gasp went up from the ranks of the political world. Did that just happen? Did the three-term governor of Texas just draw a complete, unrecoverable blank on a simple three-item list -- one he's been repeating on the stump for weeks?
The slip was nothing short of a disaster for Perry, who badly needed a solid debate performance -- for once -- if he was ever to put his campaign back on course in the diminishing time that remains before primary voting begins in January.
To be sure, we've all been there -- had a word on the tip of our brain that just refused to dislodge, particularly at a crucial moment. That was the spin from Perry's camp post-debate, when the candidate himself toured the media spin room to amiably acknowledge he had "stepped in it."
But for Perry, this was more than just a meaningless gaffe. It seemed to sum up his entire candidacy: a candidate maddeningly unable to consistently perform at the level of basic competence. Ever since he entered the race, Perry has made unforced error after unforced error, from threatening the Federal Reserve chairman with physical harm to accusing conservatives of heartlessness to seeming possessed by a number of alien personalities during a speech in New Hampshire. And now this.
Mitt Romney's camp was, naturally, gleeful -- Romney turned in his usual polished performance, waxing ecstatic about the wonders of capitalism and the joys of profit. Also clearly cheered was Herman Cain, who emerged unscathed from a debate that was supposed to put him in the hot seat over his ongoing sexual harassment scandal. (Instead, the debate audience loudly booed the moderators for raising the issue early on, Romney declined to touch it, and the conversation swiftly moved on to economic issues.) Newt Gingrich did another installment of his obnoxious tweak-the-moderators act, but this time a moderator, Maria Bartiromo, refused to be intimidated and sassed him right back. Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman were there too. Up until the "Oops" moment, everybody was doing pretty well and the debate was shaping up to be a snoozer.
But there's only one moment anyone will be talking about from this debate, and it was the moment Rick Perry's brain seemed to temporarily leave his body.
Give this much to Rick Perry: He sure managed to refocus the campaign spotlight on his candidacy. But "Can he survive?" is not the question you want people asking about your presidential campaign. Just ask Herman Cain.
Image credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.