WASHINGTON Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry crashed on the big stage on Wednesday and may never recover.
The Texas governor had already been on the ropes, trying to come back after a series of shaky debate performances that knocked him out of the front-runner position and into the second tier of candidates.
Then came his "Oops" moment at a CNBC-sponsored debate in Michigan. He stood on stage with his rivals and struggled badly to remember all three government agencies that he would eliminate if elected in November 2012.
"Oops," he said after naming the departments of Education and Commerce as two of his targets but failing to name the third. His mental lapse lasted an embarrassingly long period and rival Ron Paul finally came to the rescue to try to remind Perry of his own talking points.
A little later in the debate Perry thought of the answer -- the Department of Energy.
Gaffes are a part of presidential debates and regularly separate the wheat from the chaff.
Seeking to control damage, Perry made light of the mistake on Thursday during a round of morning television interviews.
"I think I made an error last night. I stepped in it. All of us make mistakes. I'm a human being," he told the CBS "Early Show."
He also sought to dispel doubts about his future as a candidate: "There is a day to stay in the fight. This is it. So, you bet, I'm going to continue on."
In 1976, Republican President Gerald Ford suffered a major blunder at a presidential debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter, saying Poland was not under the domination of the Soviet empire when in fact it was.
What Ford wanted to get across is that the Poles would never knuckle under to the Soviets. But it came out wrong, and Ford never recovered, losing the election to Carter.
In Perry's case, he was laying out a line from his standard stump speech, that he would get rid of the departments of Commerce, Education and Energy if he were to win the White House.
That he could not repeat a oft-stated line at a debate is likely to underscore to Republicans that he would have trouble in a debate against Democratic President Barack Obama next fall.
The Perry campaign tried to put on a brave face.
"We had a stumble of style but not substance," said Perry communications director Ray Sullivan on CNBC. "It was good he was wearing his boots tonight because he stepped in it ... We'll get through this."
Perry has been the conservative candidate that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has been watching warily. This has been the thinking in the past two months despite former pizza executive Herman Cain's rise in the polls.
Perry raised more money than Romney in the third quarter and has been offering an upbeat message in Iowa. A win or strong finish in Iowa would give him a head of steam heading into the important New Hampshire primary and turn the race into a two-man contest.
That was the view before Perry's stumble in Wednesday's debate.
"Perry can end his campaign right now," tweeted Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Republican former President George W. Bush.
What this means is that Romney looks just a little stronger in his slow drive to the nomination.