GREENVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) - Rick Perry vowed to press on with his campaign on Thursday a day after a major debate stumble, and turned to humor to try to answer doubts about his 2012 bid.
“I stepped in it that’s for sure. As a matter of fact I think, still, some of it’s stuck on my feet,” Perry told Fox News after watching a video of his “oops” moment.
Perry, already facing an uphill struggle to mount a comeback, made a difficult situation worse on Wednesday night by forgetting one of the three government agencies that he has repeatedly said he would eliminate if elected president.
The Texas governor and his team launched into damage control to keep his supporters from fleeing to one of several other candidates seeking to rise as the conservative alternative to the more moderate Mitt Romney.
“If we’re electing a debater-in-chief, don’t elect me,” he said.
Veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins said the gaffe is damaging but not necessarily fatal.
Since Perry is a good campaigner, has a well-funded operation and has strong conservative credentials, “there’s still a shot,” Rollins said, adding: “I would say it hurt him pretty badly.”
The Perry camp did about all it could do -- admit the mistake and laugh about it.
Perry appeared on CBS’ late-night comedy show, “Late Show with David Letterman,” where he read aloud the nightly Top Ten List, which on this occasion was Perry’s top 10 excuses for his “brain freeze” at the debate.
Number 6 was: “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude!” And number 7 was, “I thought the debate was tonight.”
His campaign sent out a fundraising email that included the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org -- for people to name the agency they would most like to forget. In the debate, Perry named Education and Commerce as two of the departments but could not remember Energy.
“While the media froths over this all-too-human moment, we thought we would take this opportunity to ask your help in doing something much more constructive; write us to let us know what federal agency you would most like to forget,” the email said.
The Perry camp also tried to put his mental lapse into context, pointing to other missteps like Barack Obama’s mention of 57 U.S. states instead of 50 on one occasion, or Gerald Ford’s attempt to eat a tamale without removing the inedible husk.
“I certainly had the, that agency -- of Energy -- stuck. It wasn’t even on the tip of my tongue,” Perry said on Fox, appearing to have trouble dislodging the word from his mouth again.
Inside the Perry campaign, the view was that Perry could survive by concentrating on his record of creating jobs in Texas.
Perry, who is looking to rebound after losing his front-runner status, has admitted following several shaky debate performances that he is “not the slickest debater.”
“We’re going to talk about real things,” said Katon Dawson, a Perry adviser in South Carolina. “Debates are 30-second sound bites and we’re not good at that. Being president doesn’t mean you have to be good at 30-second soundbites. It does mean you have to understand the pain that is out there among people who are looking for jobs.”
Perry’s mistake came at a crucial time, however, with Iowa to kick off the U.S. nominating contests on January 3. Perry has harbored hopes of winning Iowa but has seen his lead disappear there on the rise of businessman Herman Cain.
The gaffe took the intense media glare at least temporarily away from Cain, who has been reeling from allegations that he sexually harassed at least four women when he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Cain’s decline could benefit a mistake-free Perry but with the Texan struggling, there is always the chance that conservatives could turn to former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich, however, is viewed by many Republican leaders as an unelectable ideas man who, for example, missed a chance to shine as the latest conservative alternative to Romney by unnecessarily instigating clashes with moderators in CNBC’s Wednesday night debate
Perry’s next chance is in South Carolina on Saturday night when Republican candidates gather for yet another debate, this one sponsored by CBS and National Journal and devoted to foreign policy, which has not been a strong area for Perry.
Perry’s stumble could ultimately benefit Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is in a leading position to become the Republican presidential nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama next year.
But Perry did not concede anything on Thursday.
“One error is not going to make or break a campaign,” he said on the CBS “Early Show.”
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Karen Brooks in Austin; Editing by Deborah Charles, Doina Chiacu and Eric Beech