The CNBC Republican debate at Oakland University in Michigan was highly anticipated as the first after sexual allegations emerged against top tier candidate Herman Cain. Yet at the debate it was Rick Perry who made news. As Amy Gardner and Philip Rucker reported :

Texas Gov. Rick Perry made the worst stumble of the presidential campaign on Wednesday, struggling awkwardly to remember the name of a third federal agency he would eliminate if he became president.

At a time when Perry’s team was hoping desperately for a breakout, or at least mistake-free, performance to revive his ailing campaign, the governor’s gaffe could well do lasting damage. Perry’s performance raises more questions about his ability to compete at a time when GOP voters are looking for someone to go toe-to-toe against President Obama in 2012.

“It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he said, beginning to lay out one of the staples of his stump speech. “Commerce, Education, and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” Perry said.

“Commerce and, let’s see,” he continued. “I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

After the debate, Perry’s campaign advisers sought to contain the damage by describing the stumble as “a human moment” and “authentic.” But in a rare appearance in the media filing center after the debate, Perry acknowledged the gravity of the mistake.

“Yeah, I stepped in it, man,” he said. “Yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was. But here’s what’s more important: People understand that our principles, our conservative principles, are what matter, not a litany of agencies that I think we need to get rid of.”

He repeated that mantra Thursday morning during interviews with several nationally televised news programs. “If anybody’s looking for the slickest politician or the smoothest debater, I readily admit I’m not that person,” Perry told Fox & Friends. “But my conservative values have led one of the most influential states in the nation.”

One NBC’s “Today” show, Perry said, “One error is not going to make or break a campaign. We’re going to continue talking about the challenges facing this country.” 

Herman Cain, who came in battling accusations of sexual harassment from several women, was only asked one question about it and turned in a generally strong debate performance. Chris Cillizza breaks down the debate’s winners and losers:

We live-blogged the whole debate but also jotted down our thoughts about who won and, more appropriately for this debate, who lost. (Paging Texas Gov. Rick Perry....)

Our thoughts are below. Have winners and losers of your own? The comments section awaits.


* Mitt Romney: Steady, steady, steady. The former Massachusetts governor was on friendly territory tonight with an economic-themed debate set in the state where he was born. The crowd was very much on his side — cheering virtually anything he said. And Romney was on his game too; his answer on housing versus jobs was that of a confident frontrunner. Romney, again, looked like the person on stage most ready to carry the Republican standard next year against President Obama. Plus, the utter debate collapse of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — the only other candidate with a demonstrated ability to raise tens of millions of dollars — will likely push some on-the-fence major donors Romney’s way.

* Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker has happened onto a winning debate formula. He bashes the media at every turn, says the format of the debate is ridiculous and throws out red meat — fire Bernanke! — that gets the crowd on his side early on. With Cain’s problems and Perry’s brain freeze, Gingrich is likely to be the biggest beneficiary coming out of tonight. The problem for him is that if he does rise, it remains to be seen whether he can withstand the scrutiny that will come his way. Gingrich’s answer on the hundreds of thousands of dollars he took from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was spotty — he said they hired him for his historical knowledge(!) — and he struggled to offer specifics on what he would do after he repealed President Obama’s health care bill. Still, he likely emerges from tonight’s debate with some momentum.

* Herman Cain: Given how the night could have turned out for Cain, he and his team — such as they are — have to be happy. Cain had to answer just a single question on the sexual harassment charges against him and he did so to an audience that repeatedly made its unhappiness with the direction of the question apparent. And not one of his opponents pressed him to say more — or explain better — his role in the allegations against him. (Cain’s decision to refer to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” should rightly raise questions about his understanding of the depth of the problems he is currently dealing with, however.) Instead Cain spent most of the debate promoting “9-9-9” and touting himself as a “bold”outsider. A good night for the embattled candidate.

After the performance Rick Perry turned in at the CNBC debate, there is renewed speculation about who Mitt Romney’s main rival will be as the primary season gets underway. As Dan Balz reported:

With fewer than 60 days until the Iowa caucuses, the struggle to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney is now the central dynamic of the Republican presidential campaign. Wednesday night’s debate in Michigan did little to clarify who will ultimately emerge to challenge the former Massachusetts governor, but it may have shown who will not.

Embattled businessman Herman Cain, who has denied allegations of sexual harassment, stood his ground on that and other issues when other politicians in his situation might have wobbled. He received a strong show of support from the audience at Oakland University. But the accusations remain a serious and potentially debilitating distraction to his bid and an opening for his rivals — if they can take advantage.

One of those contenders is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who needed a breakout performance after seeing his candidacy decline in recent weeks. Instead, he froze onstage when he couldn’t remember one of the federal agencies — the Energy Department — that he would eliminate if he became president. All he could say as he struggled to recall was “oops.” The misstep is likely to be remembered as the most defining and damaging moment of his campaign.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga)., who is rising in the polls and could be positioned to take advantage of his rivals’ weaknesses, spent part of the evening dishing out withering criticism of the media, as he has done in the past. Rather than offering a cheerful face to complement his obvious knowledge of the issues, he ended up in a verbal tussle with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, one of the moderators, who refused to be intimidated.

None of the others on the stage — Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) or former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. — made a memorable impression in this ninth GOP debate, which was co-sponsored by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party. More than in any recent forums, the candidates largely chose not to challenge one another, a sign that they fear that attacks will be as damaging to them as to those they go after.


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