POLITICS
11/10/2011 12:12 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Stunning debate debacle won't derail bid to become president, Perry insists

WASHINGTON - It was the flub heard around the political world — Texas Gov. Rick Perry's agonizing 53 seconds at the latest Republican debate, struggling to remember the third federal agency he's proposing to abolish if he becomes president.

Perry's fruitless attempt to recall the Energy Department, even after enlisting the help of rival Ron Paul, ended with a feeble "oops." The colossal brain cramp spurred almost immediate predictions from a vast array of observers that his already sickly presidential bid is as good as dead.

But is it? Do debates really matter?

Perry doesn't think so, and has no intention of dropping out of the race.

"I'm human like everyone else," Perry told NBC's "Today Show" on Thursday during a round of post-debate interviews.

He then attempted to brush off the significance of what's being dubbed his "oops" moment.

"The fact of the matter is, one error is not going to make or break a campaign," he said on CBS's "The Early Show."

"We can talk about style over substance all we want, but Americans are looking for someone who can truly give them hope. That we can get this country back working again."

Republican consultant Mike Murphy suggests that's wishful thinking, and has predicted that donors to Perry's campaign will now dry up in the aftermath of the Michigan showdown.

"Political types stunned by Perry," he added in a Tweet on Thursday morning. "Now mumbling to each other like a State Fair crowd that just saw someone trip and fall into a hay baler."

Perry certainly wouldn't be the first politician to stumble miserably during a debate, only to go on to success. Nor have stellar debate performances prevented candidates from crashing and burning at the polls.

Twenty-three years ago, Lloyd Bentsen, Michael Dukakis's running mate, made debate mincemeat of his Republican counterpart, Dan Quayle, over the senator's tendency to compare himself to John F. Kennedy.

"I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy," he said in what became an iconic political diss. George H. W. Bush and Quayle went on to win the election anyway.

Al Gore and John Kerry were each far better debaters than George W. Bush was, yet both men lost to him come election day.

And yet there have also been memorably terrible debate moments for American and Canadian politicians alike, all of them sounding the death knell for their ambitions.

Richard Nixon was leading John F. Kennedy in the polls in 1960 until they appeared in a televised debate. The contrast between the wan and sweaty Nixon next to the tanned and handsome Kennedy was considered a major turning point in the campaign.

Dukakis's dispassionate response about the death penalty when asked what he'd do if his wife was raped and murdered added to perceptions he lacked passion. Dukakis himself believed that moment played a role in his defeat to Bush.

Gerald Ford's insistence that there was no Soviet Union dominance of eastern Europe in the mid-1970s as he debated Jimmy Carter hurt the president badly. Carter went on to win the 1976 election.

North of the border, conservative Brian Mulroney's manhandling of John Turner in 1984 is considered one of the biggest knockout punches in the history of Canadian political debates.

"You had an option, sir," Mulroney told him in reference to a spate of Liberal patronage appointments that Turner insisted he had no choice but to green-light. Mulroney won the election in a landslide.

Theodore Sheckels, an expert on political debates at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, says primary debates -- or in this case, pre-primary debates -- have a different purpose than general election debates.

In primary showdowns, the party's primary voters are watching to see which candidates have the best chance of winning a general election, a task that often requires them to beat an incumbent president. In 2012, that's Barack Obama, himself a smooth and competent debater.

"We can tolerate presidents who are not terribly eloquent; we've had lots of them," Sheckels said in an interview Thursday.

When people watch presidential debates, they're often paying as much attention to qualifications and experience as they are skilled debating. Not so in primary debates.

"If you know the opponent in a general election is someone who can handle himself well, you don't want to fear that your guy is going to look poorly going against him in a debate. At this stage, poor debate performances matter maybe more than they would in October of next year, because people will start to question how electable you are."

Nonetheless, Sheckels isn't convinced Perry's campaign is finished.

For one thing, he said, Perry didn't make a gross error, he simply forgot something, and primary voters might show some forgiveness.

"Research also shows that if voters have high expectations for a candidate in a debate, a poor performance will hurt him," Sheckels said.

"But if expectations are low, like they have been for Perry, it's not as damaging."