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Rick Perry turns to comedy to recover from debate gaffe, but will it be enough?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his campaign were in full damage control mode as they attempted to spin Perry’s debate gaffe as humorous, going so far as to have Perry read the top ten on Letterman. As Jena McGregor reported:

You’ve got to give Rick Perry a little credit. Going on David Letterman and poking fun at himself—a prospect that meant talking about how handsome Mitt Romney is and quipping that Justin Bieber was his father—would not be easy for most people. Responding with humor to his quickly infamous flub, in which he repeatedly stumbled over naming the third government agency he’d eliminate, may have been a good idea.

To a point, that is. There is a limit to how much light you can make of a foul-up without people wondering how serious a leader you would be. For Perry, making himself look human is one thing. But trying to turn an “oops” into an asset feels like a stretch.

Perry’s team did just that when it began campaigning off his brain freeze, asking supporters in an email to “throw in a $5 contribution for every agency you would like to forget.” It even added a poll to its web site, asking people to vote on which agency they’d like to forget. On repeated morning talk show appearances Wednesday, Perry flashed his Texas grin again and again, telling viewers to head to and vote for which government department they’d prefer not to remember.

Laughing at himself for making such a big mistake probably helped Perry recover. But making light of such a monumental move—somehow eliminating three long-standing government agencies and the thousands of jobs that go with them—could also hurt him. By turning his gaffe into a talking point (there are so “damn many federal agencies” that you’d forget them too), he appeared glib, even flippant, about fundamental parts of the U.S. government and the thousands of people those agencies employ.

Maybe that’s just what the Republican electorate wants to hear. But I can’t help but think a better response for Perry would have been to joke about the brain freeze—scientists say it’s a normal response to stress, after all—and then quickly move on to talking about the critical problems this country faces and all the effort he has put into thinking about how to fix them. Instead, he seemed to be trying to capitalize on the mistake.

Will his Letterman antics work to assuage voters or further convince them that Rick Perry is not a contender strong enough to defeat President Obama in the general election? As Perry Bacon Jr. reported:

The one-time Republican front-runner spent Thursday appearing on every television program he could, making clear he knew he had “stepped in it” by not being able to recall the three government agencies he would close as president in a Wednesday night debate.

Appearing on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” (video after the jump) the Texas governor listed the “Top 10 Rick Perry excuses” for not recalling the Commerce, Education and Energy departments as on his chopping block.

The list included “I thought the debate was tonight,” “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude,” and “I had a five-hour energy drink six hours before the debate.”

Perry concluded the list with “I wanted to take the heat off my buddy Herman Cain” and the No. 1 reason, “I just learned Justin Bieber is my father.”

Before Perry appeared to read the list, Letterman himself joked the weather in New York City was “61 and foggy, like Rick Perry.” The talk show host dubbed Perry “George W. Bush, Jr.”

But the humor may not address the core and very obvious problem: Perry has struggled in debates, a major issue for Republicans desperate for a candidate who will defeat President Obama in the fall elections.

“At this point, I like his energy policies and a lot of other things, but I think it’s going to be tough after that debate debacle,” Hamilton County (Iowa) GOP Chairman Mark Greenfield, a Perry supporter, told the Des Moines Register.

Now Perry must do the hard work of convincing voters and donors that his debate performances are not indicative of his campaign’s chances of victory. As Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake explained:

In the wake of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s brain freeze during a nationally televised presidential debate on Wednesday night, the Republican political class has divided — roughly — into two camps: those who argue that his campaign is over and those who believe he has a narrow window back to relevance.

Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, is in the former camp. “His campaign is effectively over,” said Schmidt. “This was not a singular episode. It is the grand finale in a ruinous series of public appearances which includes the bizarre New Hampshire speech.”

Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political director, sees a chance — albeit a narrow one — for Perry to find a way back. “His only option, at this point, is to convince primary voters that [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney is not acceptable,” she said. “Perhaps he’ll have enough money to do that in a state or two, but it’s getting harder with each passing day.”

Another unaligned Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly was even more blunt about Perry’s strategy going forward; “Like a wounded animal, I would expect him to attack,” the source said.

Perry spent much of Thursday trying to use humor to downplay the political sting of his 40-plus second stumble over the three federal agencies he would eliminate if elected president. (If you haven’t watched the clip — and there must be a few of you left in America — do it now.)

He read a top 10 list on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and bought banner ads on Google asking people what federal agency they’d like to forget.

Perry’s strategy is, to channel the 2008 presidential campaign for a moment, a classic case of trying to put lipstick on a pig. Humor alone won’t save him though.

There’s little question that Perry’s path to relevance is, of necessity, paved with some combination of luck and negative attacks.


How bad was Rick Perry’s oops moment for his campaign? (with video)

Cain harassment question draws boos

GOP candidates face off on economy in Detroit

Photos: The scene at the debate in Michigan

Opinion | Rubin: Rick Perry’s meltdown

Cain calls Pelosi ‘Princess Nancy’

Republican debate analysis


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