GOP Debate a Death Knell for Perry?

A gaffe that may not be recoverable.

The two big takeaways from last night’s Republican presidential debate are universally-acknowledged: Rick Perry’s embarrassing gaffe probably puts the last nail in the coffin of his campaign and the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain have earned him huge sympathy from primary voters. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney also shined, but Perry’s forgetting of the third agency he’d scrap will dominate the news coverage of the race.

The allegations against Herman Cain were the media’s obsession going into the debate. It was clear from the audience’s booing of the moderators for bringing it up and intense applause to his answer that the allegations have actually brought him sympathy. In fact, Cain’s seen a huge fundraising boost.

Primary voters don’t seem to be buying into the credibility of the women alleging that Cain harassed them. It has come out that one of the accusers has a history of accusing her bosses of misconduct. CBS Atlanta asked a private investigator to use voice analysis software to detect deceit in the addresses by Cain and his public accuser, Sharon Bialek. The operator, who said the software has an accuracy rate of 95% and is used by nearly 70 law enforcement agencies, was confident that Cain was telling the truth and Bialek was not. It’s possible that the drama of Bialek’s press conference has yet to register in the polls, but as of right now, he remains the front-runner nationally and in Iowa and South Carolina.

The moment everyone is talking about and will continue to talk about is Rick Perry’s huge slip-up. He had some strong moments in the debate, like when he talked about planting a flag that says, “America is open for business again.” That was instantly forgotten when he passionately talked about cutting government and said he’d cut three agencies, naming the Education and Commerce Departments as his targets and forgetting the third on his list. It made for an incredibly awkward minute. He later said that the agency he forgot was the Energy Department.

Political science expert Larry Sabato tweeted that it was “the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate.” Nate Silver tweeted that Perry’s stock on Intrade fell from 8% to 4% in just a few minutes. When Perry entered the spin room, he said, “I’m sure glad I had my boots on because I sure stepped in it out there.” Polls show him in sixth place in Iowa and in fourth place in South Carolina. This is simply a mistake that his campaign could not afford and it is likely fatal to his chances of a comeback.

Mitt Romney did very well as usual. He won significant applause to nearly every answer he gave. His comment that the President should never apologize for the country was warmly received. Interestingly, in answer to a question about the perception of him as a flip-flopper, he mentioned that he’s only been with one wife and has stayed at once church. This was a way of reaching out to social conservatives, but one can’t help but think it may have been a way of contrasting himself with Gingrich, who is now statistically tied with Romney for second place in Iowa.

His biggest moment was when he said he’d confront China for intellectual property theft, hacking into government and corporate computers and currency manipulation. He said he’d label China as a currency manipulator and bring the case to the World Trade Organization. His answer on tax reform where he said that he would not immediately pursue a flat tax but would like to see it happen “eventually,” was the answer that the audience was the least receptive to. Romney’s problem remains that his poll numbers stay at around 25%. He needs his opponents to split the vote against him in order to win.

Newt Gingrich had an excellent night that will continue his momentum. He has a great chance to pick up Rick Perry’s supporters. Of all the candidates, he most consistently pleased the audience. He said he wants Ben Bernanke “fired as rapidly as possible” and called for auditing the Federal Reserve. As usual, he criticized the moderators and news media for their reporting on the economy and Occupy Wall Street. His answer on the high cost of education was particularly noteworthy. He will probably cement his third-place position now.

Michele Bachmann is staking out ground as the foreign policy hawk. She framed the deficit as a national security issue. She said that the Chinese “dumped” counterfeit computer chips into the U.S. that are now used in the Pentagon’s computers and that China is constructing underground tunnels for storing nuclear weapons. She explained that American money paid for China’s first aircraft carrier and will soon be paying for their entire army. Her other stand-out moment was when she accused Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of engaging in crony capitalism.

There were no memorable moments from Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman. In an exchange reminiscent of when Tim Pawlenty declined to criticize Romney to his face, Huntsman said his rivals calling for confronting China were “pandering.” He was then given an opportunity to take on Romney and backed down. Ron Paul’s two best answers were when he said he’d cut $1 trillion from the federal budget and eliminate five agencies and when he said that federal student loans were responsible for rising education costs.

The debate was one of the most polite ones, without a single significant exchange between the candidates. Still, it was a decisive one. It will be extremely difficult for Rick Perry to recover. Right now, the race is dominated by Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and any of the three could win the nomination.

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