GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry tells TODAY's Ann Curry that his major stumble in Wednesday night's Republican debate.
Updated: Rick Perry said Thursday that a major mistake during a Republican candidates debate — when he was unable to remember which of three government agencies he would abolish — won't be the end of his presidential bid.
"Oh, shoot, no," Perry told The Associated Press, a day after he stood on stage unable to remember the third federal department he would cut.
He was asked if his campaign, struggling to regain traction, could survive. "This ain't a day for quitting nothing," he said.
'Everybody makes mistakes'
Perry says others have made similar mistakes and that the screw-up will humanize him.
"The president of the United States said there were 57 states one time. Everybody makes mistakes," he said.
While the debate featured the most scrutiny to date of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's economic plans, and was highlighted by Herman Cain's first debate appearance since the emergence of sexual harassment allegations against him, the gaffe threatened to crystallize Republicans' concerns about his candidacy.
Turning to Texas Rep. Ron Paul to boast, Perry said: "I'll tell you: It's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, education and, the, uh, what's the third one there? ... Commerce, education and the uh, the uh...," before being interrupted by a question. "The third agency of government I would do away with -- the education, uh the, uh, commerce, and let's see -- I can't... the third one, I can't. I'm sorry ... oops."
As he stumbled, Perry's rivals suggested the Environmental Protection Agency.
He followed up in a subsequent answer: "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago.”
It was a jarring moment for Perry, who has been plagued with poor debate performances.
His poll numbers declined after the August launch of his campaign in part due to these shaky outings and critics have noted that his stamina in the two-hour-long debates seems to wane. Wednesday night's forum had offered an opportunity for him to resuscitate his campaign.
The moment could underscore concerns about Perry and whether he could hold his own onstage as a serious presidential candidate.
Perry emerged in the spin room following the debate to engage in damage control. He said he was "glad I had my boots on 'cause I sure stepped in it tonight ... Bottom line is, I may have forgotten energy, but I haven't forgotten my conservative principles."
To a large degree, Perry's gaffe overshadowed the defiant moment earlier in the debate when Cain defended himself from the harassment allegations that besieged his campaign.
Cain had sought to put an end to the issue with a press conference on Tuesday, but the possibility of one of his accusers, Karen Kraushaar, soon publicly detailing her allegations against Cain -- along with the possibility that one of his GOP competitors might use the allegations to tarnish Cain's campaign -- all but guarantee the issue remains a current one on the campaign trail.
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," Cain said to wild cheers in the early moments of the debate. "This country's looking for leadership, and this is why a lot of people, despite what has happened over the last nine days ... the voters have voted with their dollars, and they are saying they don't care about character assasination -- they care about leadership and getting this economy going and all the other problems that we face."
Mark Blinch / Reuters
Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) listens while businessman Herman Cain speaks at the CNBC Republican presidential debate in Rochester, Michigan, November 9, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
But amid talk of his treatment of women, Cain drew some gasps -- and applause -- later during a discussion of health care, when he referred to former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "Princess Nancy."
He seemed, too, to get a pass from Romney, with whom Cain is jockeying for the top spot in primary polls.
"Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions -- he just did to the people in this room and accross the country," Romney said when asked if he was satisfied by Cain's response.
The candidates gathered in at Oakland University in suburban Detroit, an area hard-hit by the poorly performing economy, to primarily talk jobs and economic growth in their first debate in three weeks.
Cain and Romney -- a native of Michigan -- entered the debate amid a battle for the top slot in primary polling; this week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal had Romney, at 28 percent, as the top choice of primary voters, with Cain, at 27 percent, trailing by just a point. Perry stood at 10 percent.
Despite the fact that they're tied atop the polls, Romney is regarded by most GOP insiders as the odds-on favorite (at this point in the race) to win the nomination. He received the bulk of the questions, about almost every part of his platform: from taxes, to the auto bailouts, to the European debt crisis, to housing, to health care and beyond.
'Wrong way to go'
He faced pressure in particular about his constancy regarding the 2008-09 bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler, two major employers in Michigan's sagging economy.
"My view with regards to the bailout was that, whether it was by President Bush or President Obama, it was the wrong way to go," he said. "I said from the very beginning that they should have gone through a managed bankruptcy process -- a private bankruptcy process. We have capital markets and bankruptcy; it works in the U.S."
Michigan is relatively friendly territory for Romney; he grew up in the state, and his father served as governor in the 1960s, following his time as an auto executive.
Herman Cain is asked why Americans should elect someone with "character issues" during CNBC's Republican Presidential Debate.
But it's the issue of autos, the industry that dominates the state, that could offer Romney the most difficulty. Democrats haven't let the state's voters forget an op-ed penned by Romney at the height of Chrysler and General Motors' financial difficulties in 2008, urging the government to let Detroit "go bankrupt."
Democrats have used that op-ed to portray Romney as callous toward the state’s economic woes. But Republicans are hopeful they could win Michigan in 2012 with a candidate like Romney atop the ticket. Romney's campaign argues that it was his approach -- a bankruptcy followed by subsequent government support -- that the Obama administration was eventually forced to use.
Romney sought to cast himself as a consistent native son, saying none of his competitors cared about Michigan and the auto industry the way he did.
"I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy. I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do," he said.
Romney and Cain each were critical early, too, of the debt-related crises plaguing Greece, Italy and the rest of the European economy. Cain urged the U.S. to focus on its economy alone, while Romney pledged to oppose any bailout for Italy or banks holding that country's debt.
They were joined by the other candidates onstage -- former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- in looking toward improved political fortunes with a good debate showing.
Primary voting begins in less than eight weeks, at Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses.
msnbc.com's Michael O'Brien, The Associated Press and NBC's Garrett Haake and Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.