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First Thoughts: Brain freeze

Perry’s brain freeze overshadows all other news from last night’s debate… He tries to control the damage by hitting the after-debate spin room and all the morning shows… Question to ponder: How would Bush have fared in a debate-dominated primary season?… Remember Jan Brewer’s similar flub?… Cain stands his ground… Romney remains a lucky man… And two final points: 1) Some of the candidates adopt populist messages, and 2) and they all mostly punted on Italy/European debt questions. 

ROCHESTER, MI -- Call it the brain freeze viewed around the world, or the most uncomfortable pause in presidential-campaign history, or the final piece of proof that the Texas governor's struggles in debates will be his downfall. Whatever it was, Rick Perry’s inability to recall the third government agency he’d eliminate overshadowed a debate here in which Herman Cain (because of the sexual-harassment allegations against him) and Mitt Romney (because of his front-runner status) were supposed to be in the spotlight. And it very well could mark the unofficial end of Perry’s campaign.

Watch Perry's debate gaffe here

The irony of Perry’s brain freeze: Up until it happened, the debate was mostly absent of major news or memorable moments -- perhaps due to the realization by the GOP candidates that trying to make news and mix it up wouldn’t break through the Paterno/Penn State, Italy/Europe stories or even the Cain allegations. Well guess what: One debate story DID break through, and it was for the candidate who could least afford an unforced error.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the CNBC Republican presidential debate, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

*** Damage control: To Perry’s credit, he’s tried his best to limit the damage. Immediately after the debate, he entered the post-debate spin room -- a rare occurrence for a top-tier candidate -- and owned up to his flub. "I sure stepped in it out there," he said, per NBC’s Carrie Dann. "The bottom line is I may have forgotten energy but I haven't forgotten my conservative principles."

Click to see a slideshow on the rise of the Texas Gov.

The campaign also fired off an email to supporters that tried to inject a little humor about the gaffe (“Just goes to show there are too damn many federal agencies”) and asked them what federal agencies they’d like to forget (with a website called forgetmenot@rickperry.org). And he granted interviews to all the morning shows. "I will tell you, I don't mind saying clearly that I stepped in it last night," he said on “TODAY,” adding: "I am human like everyone else. I stumbled over that agency. But at the end of the day, this truly is about who is it who has a vision to get this country back working again, who has a plan."

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry tells TODAY's Ann Curry that his major stumble in Wednesday night's Republican debate.

*** How would have Bush fared? Here’s a question to ponder: Twelve years ago, would George W. Bush -- who, remember, wasn’t that good of a debater early in the 1999-2000 campaign -- have still cruised through the GOP primary season in today’s current system where debates play such an important role? The fact of the matter is that the televised debates have turned into Iowa, becoming the first true test for the candidates and the first bar to clear. And that development hasn’t helped Perry one bit. Four years ago, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were able to campaign for about three months in Iowa and New Hampshire before their first primary debate. But get this: Perry has been a candidate for less than THREE months (Aug. 13 to now), and last night was his SIXTH debate.

*** Remember Jan Brewer? And here’s one final point about Perry: Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) had a similar brain freeze during a debate. And while many thought it could damage her candidacy, she went on to win re-election easily. But there are two important differences. One, Brewer was leading that contest at the time (and Perry is not). And two, Perry had almost no margin for error after his past debate performances. Remember, in the most recent NBC/WSJ poll, the Republican who saw the biggest decline was Perry. And he had a higher NEGATIVE rating among Republicans than either Romney or Cain.


Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain at the CNBC GOP presidential debate, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

*** Cain stands his ground: As for the candidate we all thought would be the center of attention in last night’s debate -- Herman Cain -- he turned in a good debate performance, all things considered. The crowd helped him sidestep the sexual-harassment question, and his answers lacked substance (though he’s never been a candidate of substance). But as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes, Cain did what he needed to do. “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.” But Cain clearly didn’t help himself when he referred to Nancy Pelosi -- who (whether you like her or not) has accomplished more in American politics than Cain ever has -- as “Princess Nancy.” Given the controversy swirling around him, taking a shot at a prominent woman politician at this time was probably not the smoothest move. And NBC’s Andrew Rafferty reports that Cain admitted to CNBC that he regretted his line about Pelosi. Cain said he should not have used the phrase, though his campaign EAGERLY tweeted out the shot DURING the debate.

*** Lucky man: As for Romney, he remains the luckiest man in the Republican field. As Politico’s headline puts it, “Romney’s rivals continue to implode.” And Romney remains the focus of the Obama campaign’s and DNC’s attention. In fact, the DNC released this web video hitting Romney, once again, on his opposition to the auto bailout. 

*** Two final points: And here are a couple final points on last night’s debate. First, some of the GOP candidates took populist tones. “Let me just say that I want to be the president of the 99%. I also want to be the president of the 1%,” Jon Huntsman said. And Rick Santorum emphasized his manufacturing plan. ”That's why I've focused on this sector. I understand … that the Wall Street Journal won't like that I'm picking one sector over another. I don't care.” (Newt Gingrich, of course, took a different tack when he said the participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement don’t have a clue about history.) Second, the candidates mostly punted in their answers about Italy and the European debt situation. Was it the candidates not wanting to deal with the reality of bailing out an Italy in front of a Republican Party that wants no part of the "b" word these days (b=bailouts)? Or was it they weren't comfortable with the subject matter and figured it was easier to pivot back to safer ground? 

*** On the 2012 trail: The day after the debate, both Cain and Romney stay in Michigan to attend rallies in the state (Cain’s in Ypsilanti and Romney’s in Troy)… Santorum returns to New Hampshire… Gingrich and Paul also head to the Granite State… And Bachmann’s in South Carolina.

*** Thursday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up (live from the debate site in Michigan): CNBC's John Harwood and the Washington Post's Dan Balz with complete debate analysis… Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan GOP Chairman Robert Schostak with reaction to last night's debate and Michigan's outlook for 2012… Latest on the Penn State sexual abuse scandal… And more 2012 news with the Washington Post's Amy Gardner and GOP strategist Pete Seat.

*** Thursday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Dem Rep. James Clyburn, Joe Solmonese from the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, Politico’s Glenn Thrush, the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett, and former Defense Secretary Williams Cohen. 

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