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Star-Telegram.com

Rick Perry has big 'oops' moment in GOP debate

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 09, 2011

By Dave Montgomery

dmontgomery@star-telegram.com

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry says he would eliminate three federal agencies. Just don't ask him to name them.

The Texas governor on Wednesday night struggled during a debate with his rivals and said he would nix the Commerce and Education departments. He drew a blank when the moderator asked what the third agency would be.

Perry previously has called on the elimination of the Energy Department.

Perry is only saying "oops" for drawing a blank on a favorite subject of criticism on the campaign trail.

He has struggled at previous debates and although he's committed to four more, his advisers are considering skipping future ones.

Meanwhile, businessman Herman Cain is continuing to defend himself against accusations that he sexually harassed women when he led a Washington trade group more than a decade ago.

Cain said at a Republican presidential debate Wednesday that the American people "deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations."

Cain says that since the allegations surfaced more than a week ago, "voters have voted with their dollars," and supported his campaign.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was asked about the allegations against Cain. Romney says Cain has responded to the questions and "people can make their own assessment."

The questions about the Cain allegations generated boos from the audience at Oakland University.

Romney declared he is fed up with being branded as a flip-flopper. He said in the debate that his marriage of 42 years is proof of his consistency.

The former Massachusetts governor says Wednesday that he is "a man of steadiness and constancy." He was asked during a debate in Michigan why voters should trust him given policy shifts.

Romney says he is a steady presence and pointed to his marriage and the 25 years he spent at Bain consulting firm.

Questions about Romney's authenticity have dogged him during his second presidential bid. He has changed positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Democrats and his GOP rivals have sought to highlight those shifts on issues important to primary voters.

Perry sought to capitalize on the debate as his latest opportunity to salvage his foundering presidential campaign. It's the first debate since Perry unveiled his plans for an optional flat tax and sexual harassment allegations began threatening Cain's surging candidacy.

Perry said federal regulations are "killing America."

But Perry's flub on federal agencies was getting all the attention.

Ron Paul on attack

The other Texan in the Republican primary race, Congressman Ron Paul, also was looking to score points with voters by attacking not just the fiscal policies of the White House, but also Congress.

The debate, televised nationally on CNBC from a university about 30 miles outside of Detroit, was intended to focus on the economy, but the sexual harassment uproar dogging Cain dominated pre-debate media coverage. The Atlanta businessman has accused the Perry campaign of planting the initial leaks that touched off the controversy, but Perry and his advisers have adamantly denied any involvement.

Perry hoped to use the debate - his sixth since entering the race in mid-August - to tout his evolving economic plan and energize a once-promising campaign that has continued to founder in the polls. The Texas governor became an instant frontrunner just days after declaring his candidacy, but two national surveys this week showed that he has lost much of his support and is polling no higher than 11 percent among likely Republican voters.

The debate was also crucial for Cain, who was hoping to change the conversation back to the conservative themes which have helped him gain traction in the race, particularly the 9-9-9 economic plan that includes a flat 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9-percent national sales tax.

Cain has adamantly denied allegations that he engaged in sexual harassment when he headed the National Restaurant Association more than a decade ago. The controversy first broke more than 10 days ago but intensified this week after an Illinois woman, Sharon Bialek, accused Cain of groping her while she was seeking employment at the NRA

A former NRA employee, Karen Kraushaar, has acknowledged that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Cain and received a cash settlement from the organization.

Cain, drawing strong support from the tea party, has bounded from single-digits in the polls to join former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The most recent polls show that Cain is running neck-and-neck against Romney despite the sexual harassment allegations.

Perry, who has fallen back in the pack and is now well behind the two front-runners, hoped to use the debate's economic theme to tout his ambitious "Cut, Balance and Grow Plan" that envisions the creation of more than 3 million jobs - including at least a million in the energy sector - and a balanced federal budget by 2020.

A centerpiece of Perry's economic plan includes an optional 20 percent flat tax that Americans could submit on a post-card sized return. Taxpayers could also choose to fill out their taxes under the current bracketed system. .

'Wrecking ball'

In an op-ed statement on the CNBC Website in advance of the debate, Perry vowed to "take a wrecking ball to the Washington establishment so that we can get America working again." He also declared that President Obama's policies have resulted in "midnight in America."

Perry, one of the best financed candidates in the race, is hoping for a strong showing in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses to get his candidacy back on track. His campaign has been running TV ads in Iowa and Perry will return to the state next week for another round of personal campaigning.

The latest Republican debate was held at Oakland University in a state that has been hammered by the nation's economic troubles. Although the auto industry appears to be on the upswing, Michigan is still struggling with an abysmal housing market and other problems. The state's unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the third highest behind Nevada and California.

Romney, the son of a Michigan governor and a Detroit native, was greeted with a negative ad by the Democratic National Committee that drew attention to Romney's opposition to the U.S. bailout of Chrysler and General Motors. "You wouldn't know he was from around here," declared the ad, entitled, "Hit the Road, Mitt."

Romney said in advance of the debate that there is no candidate "more pained by Michigan's struggles than I am" and blamed President Obama for worsening the U.S. economy. Romney is pushing a multi-point economic plan that includes tax cuts, capping federal spending and overhauling the tax code to "make it flatter, fairer and simpler."

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-476-4294

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