Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry says he would eliminate three federal agencies. Just don't ask him to name them.
Perry struggled during a debate Wednesday night with his rivals and said he would nix the Commerce and Education departments. But he drew a blank when the moderator asked what the third agency would be.
"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone -- Commerce, Education and the, uh, what's the third one there?" he said as the audience and fellow candidates began laughing.
Fellow Texan Rep. Ron Paul prompted him with, "EPA?"
"EPA, there you go," Perry said with a smile as laughter filled the room.
But when pressed by moderator John Harwood if the Environmental Protection Agency was the department Perry meant, the governor said no, adding that he thinks the EPA needs to be rebuilt.
"The third agency of government I would, I would do away with -- Education, uh, the, Commerce, and, let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. I'm sorry. Oops," he said.
Perry previously has called on the elimination of the Department of Energy, and said later in the debate that the Energy Department was the one he meant.
Seconds after Perry's gaffe, social media sites were flooded with comments from viewers, reporters and prominent conservatives.
"Oh...my...Rick Perry," tweeted NBC's Chuck Todd.
"Perry is just so relieved this debate is only on CNB... Um,....uh. B?... No, wait, I know this, hold on... Uh... CNB... oh crap..." tweeted Ann Coulter.
Even Perry poked fun at himself after the debate on his Twitter account, saying: "Really glad I wore my boots 2nite because I stepped in it out there. I did still name 2 agencies to eliminate. Obama has never done that!"
After the debate, Perry did something he rarely does: He went into the debate "spin room" to talk to reporters about the flub.
In a video posted by the Texas Tribune, Perry admitted he "stepped in it" with his flub.
Perry has struggled at previous debates and although he's committed to four more, his advisers are considering skipping future ones.
"We all felt very bad for him," Rep. 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, Perry has 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 Perry, 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.
Perry 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.
NBC 5's Omar Villafranca and Lita Beck and Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
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