Rick Perry has been campaigning for months. He’s been shaking hands and kissing babies in the way politicians are meant to when they want elected. But in just fifty three seconds all that was undermined. Fifty three seconds which could kill his presidential bid.
Initially he was quoted as being reluctant to enter the race, but urged on by his wife, Anita. He declared his candidacy in the summer. He immediately became the front runner and as such attracted a pile of money who believed the next Republican president could again be a governor from Texas.
Perry is not a great debater. He says he’s ‘a doer not a talker’. But his performances in previous debates were, frankly, terrible, and his drop in the polls reflected voters’ unease.
Yet, what we witnessed on Wednesday night was a meltdown of epic proportions described by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabatto on Twitter as ‘the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate’.
Perry has a ‘stump speech’ – the address he delivers in almost every stop in the campaign. It repeats the well tested messages his team members believe will resonate with voters and carry him to victory. He bashes Obama, obviously, and he criticises Washington. A common theme is the government departments he would scrap to save money and return the power to the states.
Yet, on the spot and under pressure on Wednesday, he couldn’t remember what they were. “It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone” he said with passion and conviction.
“Commerce, Education and er…what’s the third one there? Let’s see’. Some of his rivals helpfully offered suggestions while the audience laughed nervously. He produced a piece of paper but still couldn’t come up with the answer. “I would do away with the education, the Commerce and….let’s see…I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry”. And as if to punctuate the painful absurdity of it all he produced a sheepish grin and added ‘Ooops’.
As the debate ended, many of the candidates hung around to speak with supporters, sign autographs and pose for pictures. Perry disappeared. He spent the next twenty four hours desperately trying to row back on his mistake. He appeared on almost every American TV morning news show, contrite and humble. “I will tell you, I don’t mind saying clearly, that I stepped in it last night”.
He appeared on one late night talk show, delivering a comedic top ten list of excuses. It was funny and he delivered the lines well with a great deal of charm. He won over the room. Winning over the electorate may be a great deal harder.
One top republican interviewed by the Washington Post believes ‘There’s going to be a large percentage of the electorate that’s going to think he isn’t ready for the job”. And if he appears unelectable then the millions of dollars which have flooded to his campaign will suddenly dry up.
His campaigners have tried to spin the moment as ‘human and authentic’ and insisted the US already has a ‘debater in chief – how’s that working for us?’.
But the stumble is a defining moment. Most people don’t follow the day to day developments, the campaign stops. This will be the thing most people will now know Rick Perry for rather than anything he’s said or done before. James Hohmann, a national political reporter with Politico told me “When you are remembered for an inability to remember a list of three things, you are in pretty bad shape”.
The moment Rick Perry stumbled is still the most watched moment on online video channels in the past 36 hours. In US politics, they insist you can never say never, but it looks as if the Texas governor’s campaign suffered a self-inflicted fatal blow on stage in Michigan on Wednesday with an oops that was heard around the world.