Rick Perry shows his proposed income tax form to Megyn Kelly on the Fox News… (Richard Drew, AP )
Reporting from Des Moines — With a debate gaffe blasting through his presidential candidacy, Rick Perry turned from seeking resurgence to trying to avoid extinction.
His fundraisers have begun to abandon the Texas governor. Republican strategists are offering eulogies. Perry, who has avoided interviews throughout his two-month campaign, signaled the depth of his desperation by talking almost nonstop to national media outlets Thursday, ending with a stop on CBS' Letterman show to mock his mistake. Few thought it would help.
The candidate who had shot to the top of the polls as the alternative to Mitt Romney only to plummet earthward from a series of mistakes, now faces multiple conundrums. The stakes for all future debates — the next is Saturday — loom as huge, and Perry acknowledges obvious shortcomings in that setting. His political fate rests on a win in Iowa, but he now faces competing pressures to camp out there and to travel the nation raising money.
"I think the Perry campaign is over. I regret saying that and I do not say it easily," said one prominent Perry bundler, who spoke anonymously to preserve relations with the candidates and other Republicans. "I like him, I admire him … but the reality is he is consistently the weakest performer in these debates and does not, unfortunately, pass the test of presidential acceptability. Close your eyes and think of Rick Perry and Barack Obama on a debate platform, and I don't think you have to say much more."
Perry campaign staff attended what one official described as "an upbeat meeting" in the campaign's Austin headquarters Thursday morning. "Everyone was reminded not to get distracted," the official said. Some employees circulated emails from Perry supporters designed to fire up the base. But the buoyant message from Austin masked deep concern among some of the campaign's most ardent allies.
The tumult stemmed from an exchange at Wednesday's debate in Michigan. Perry said that once elected president he would eradicate three departments to shrink the federal government. After naming two — Education and Commerce — he drew a blank on the third. After an agonizing period of time, during which his rivals tried to help him out, a dazed-looking Perry finally gave up.
"I can't," Perry replied. "The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."
(Later in the debate, he remembered the department — Energy — which governs an issue he talks about constantly at campaign events.)
The exchange was especially devastating because it reinforced growing perceptions among Republicans that Perry lacks the deftness and discipline required to serve in the Oval Office.
"It still makes my skin crawl, and I've watched it 37 times since last night. It was just an unbelievable mental collapse," said Rich Galen, a veteran GOP strategist watching the primaries from the sidelines. "One of the things about being presidential is being able to react properly in a crisis.... For Perry last night that debate was a crisis mode. It was a big moment and he couldn't do it. I don't see how he comes back."
A saving grace is Perry's flush war chest, which will give him some money to attempt a resurrection — if he can convince his fundraisers to remain aboard.
"He's still sitting on a mountain of cash, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon. But if he doesn't find a way to start looking and sounding more presidential and prepared for the job, he may as well return all that cash because it's just going to be wasted," said D. Todd Harris, a GOP strategist who also is neutral in the race.
On Thursday, Perry tried to contain the damage by jocularly casting his gaffe as an understandable, if unfortunate, human error.
"Anytime you're standing up in front of how many million people we were and you have a loss of a train of thought, sure it impacts you. But the fact is, one error is not going to make or break a campaign," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
He said he would participate in Saturday's debate — on foreign policy, a weak spot — but declined to commit to others.
Perry's campaign had been sputtering even before the latest implosion. He entered the race with the resume of a formidable contender — a decadelong tenure governing a state that is a rare economic bright spot, and a folksy charm that plays well among voters in states such as Iowa. But after rising to front-runner status weeks after his campaign began, he has recently been mired in the single digits.
During previous debates, he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and said those who disagreed with in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants "don't have a heart." While campaigning, he implied that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was edging toward treason and would be dealt with violently in Texas. He suggested the American military get involved in Mexico's drug war. After a supporter denigrated Mormonism — Romney's faith — as a cult, Perry had to answer for it for days.