It will be the first debate as a top-tier contender for former House speaker Newt Gingrich who is enjoying a surge in support, according to new polls numbers released Friday.
The campaign has shifted to South Carolina because the state’s Jan. 21 primary is the third contest of the GOP primary race. No candidate is considered a strong favorite here.
And the chances for a campaign-shifting gaffe at this debate seems particularly high, both for Perry and the other candidates. Compared with the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), this group of candidates has little experience on national security issues aside from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who served as U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to earlier this year.
Perry, perhaps more than any other candidate, needs a strong performance in Spartanburg. The one-time leader in the polls suffered a huge debate setback in Michigan Wednesday after he could only name two of the three government departments he would close if elected president.
According to reports Friday, the Perry campaign has bought almost $1 million worth of advertising time on the Fox News Channel, a reminder that, despite his recent problems, Perry remains a very well-funded candidate.
Walking in a Veterans Day parade here on Friday, Perry smiled when a man shouted “brain freeze man” within earshot of the candidate and a woman asked if he could now recall the departments. (They are Commerce, Education, and Energy.) The governor has spent the past two days repeatedly mocking himself for the gaffe, even as some of his own supporters worry about his ability to recover.
“I forgot a federal agency. . . . it is what it is, it’s behind us,” Perry said in an interview with the Columbia-based the State newspaper on Friday. “Other than forgetting the name of a federal agency, I thought our debate performance and preparation was fine.”
In an interview, a top Perry fundraiser, who did not want to be quoted publicly, said many people who had personally pledged to him that they would donate to Perry’s campaign are now reneging on those commitments.
The dynamics of the race, however, are that even if Perry is fatally wounded, there’s an opening for another candidate to challenge former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has been in the lead, or tied for it, in the national polls throughout the year but still has not galvanized the party around him. A survey released by CBS News on Friday showed Cain collecting 18 percent of the vote among Republicans, Romney and Gingrich at 15 percent and Perry in fourth place at 8 percent.
A McClatchy-Marist poll also showed a surge for Gingrich, placing him at 19 percent, effectively tied with Cain and just behind Romney after the former speaker languished in single digits for much of the year.