ROCHESTER, Mich. — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry says he would eliminate three federal agencies. Just don't ask him to name them.
"Commerce, Education and the — what's the third one there? Let's see," the Texas governor said during a debate Wednesday night.
Perry's rivals tried to bail him out, suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency.
"EPA, there you go," Perry said, seemingly taking their word for it.
But that wasn't it. And when pressed, the candidate drew another blank.
"Seriously?" moderator John Harwood, one of CNBC's debate hosts, asked. "You can't name the third one?"
"The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, the Commerce. And let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't," Perry said. "Oops."
Later in the debate, Perry revisited the question and said he meant to call for the elimination of the Energy Department.
The immediate fallout was brutal — at least on Twitter.
"Perry response will be on highlight reels for years to come," business legend Jack Welch tweeted.
"Off screen, Dr. (Ron) Paul is sadly administering the last rites to Rick Perry," Republican strategist Mike Murphy added. "Dr. Paul filling out paperwork as they haul Perry away. He's ruling it a suicide."
"Rick Perry just lost the debate. And the entire election. You only had to name three," Tim Albrecht, the top spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is unaligned in the GOP race, tweeted from his personal account.
After the debate, Perry appeared to be in damage control mode.
In dramatic fashion, he bee-lined it to the so-called "spin room" where a crush of reporters were gathered to interview campaign surrogates — and he immediately indicated that he knew he had made a really bad mistake. The first words out of his mouth as reporters crowded around: "I'm glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight," he said.
Still, Perry almost seemed to minimize the impact, adding: "People understand that it is our conservative principles that matter."
"We all felt very bad for him," Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman also running for the nomination, said after the debate, calling the moment uncomfortable.
The next few days will shed light on whether voters care about the misstep — and punish him for it.
Over the past two weeks, Perry has sought to prove he's still a credible challenger to Republican Mitt Romney by rolling out detailed policy proposals. But he's found himself dogged by suggestions that he had been drinking or taking drugs when he gave an animated speech in New Hampshire. It went viral online, prompting Perry to state that he was not, in fact, under the influence of a substance.
NBC's "Saturday Night Live" did a Perry parody last weekend that was widely viewed.
In recent days, the candidate started to take his message directly to the voters by running sunny biographical television ads in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It's an effort to re-introduce himself to Republican primary voters in a safer setting that circumvents the news media.
Wednesday was the latest tough debate for the GOP candidate who has struggled in the national spotlight since entering the race in August, the last time he was at the top of polls. His standing has fallen throughout the fall, and he's fighting to gain ground less than two months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.
He has committed to four more debates — in a year when the GOP electorate is clearly tuned into them — but his advisers are considering skipping future ones.
Presidential debates have offered pivotal moments for decades, from Al Gore's audible sighs in 2000 to Michael Dukakis' tepid answer about the death penalty in 1988.
A statement by Gerald Ford in a 1976 presidential debate is among the most memorable, however. Ford famously baffled audiences when he said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Later pressed by the moderator, he refused to back down. The moment haunted the rest of his losing campaign.
Publicly Perry aides sought to downplay Wednesday night's shaky answer.
"We had a stumble of style and not substance," insisted Ray Sullivan, Perry's top communications adviser. "He still named two more agencies than this president (would eliminate)."
Perry had no public schedule on Thursday and planned to privately raise money at events in Tennessee. His next public campaign stops were scheduled in South Carolina on Friday — a day before yet another debate.
Elliott reported from Washington.