The latest Republican debate was expected to focus on Herman Cain, the presidential hopeful currently embroiled in a lewd sexual harassment scandal.
But Texas Gov. Rick Perry unwittingly stole the spotlight from his rival with a potentially fatal verbal fumble that he punctuated with a feeble “oops,” neatly making Mr. Cain's woes look minuscule in comparison in a debate that was already paying them short shrift.
In the CNBC economic debate in Michigan, Mr. Perry was asked about his tax and spending plan and proceeded to falter painfully, unable to list the three federal agencies he's proposing to abolish.
“And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he said. “Commerce, education, and the — what's the third one there? Let's see .... OK. Commerce, education, and the —”
He looked helplessly toward the elderly Ron Paul, standing next to him on the stage, who added helpfully: “The EPA?”
Mr. Perry replied: “EPA, there you go.”
The moderator pressed on, asking if, indeed, he was proposing to cut the Environmental Protection Agency. He said no, but admitted he could not name the third agency.
“The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops.”
About 15 minutes later, Mr. Perry told the moderator that the Department of Energy was his third target, but by then, the damage was done.
“To my memory, Perry's forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political expert, tweeted in the moments following the blunder.
“Is it possible that Perry's campaign ended tonight? Sounds harsh but it was that bad.”
There were almost immediate reports of Perry fundraisers declaring his campaign dead in the water, while the candidate himself made no effort to play down the flub following the debate.
“I'm glad I had my boots on tonight,” he said. “I stepped in it out there.”
Mr. Cain, on the other hand, was on a high after the mere mention of the sexual harassment scandal was met with boos and jeers from the audience, illustrating how the sordid allegations against him have yet to wound him among primary voters.
Two CNBC moderators posed questions about the scandal and importance of character in politicians -- one to Mr. Cain himself, the other to his fellow frontrunner, Mitt Romney, in the first half-hour of the showdown.
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” Mr. Cain said to cheers. “I value my character and my integrity more than anything else.”
When Mr. Romney was then asked if he'd hire someone accused of such misdeeds, he deftly dodged the question -- and was also cheered.
“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these accusations,” he said. “He just did. The people in this room and around the country can make their own determination.”
Mr. Cain, in fact, had a strong debate, spurring some of the biggest laughs of the night, particularly when he called top Democrat Nancy Pelosi “Princess Nancy.” He made reference to his 9-9-9 taxation plan so often that one of the moderators, Jim Cramer, asked him to stop.
In reply, he laughingly referred to 9-9-9 as his “bold plan.”
After the debate, Mr. Cain was magnanimous when asked about Mr. Perry's disastrous flub.
“Americans can be very forgiving,” he said.
Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who has sunk in the polls, was equally kind.
“It was a tough moment,” she said on CNBC. “We all felt very bad for him.”
This year's spate of Republican presidential debates have already proven to be scintillating affairs that have attracted millions of viewers. Wednesday night's was no exception now that one of the frontrunners is at the centre of a sexual harassment scandal.
Mr. Cain, the former pizza executive who once headed the National Restaurant Association, is facing allegations from four separate women that he sexually harassed them in the 1990s as he helmed the trade group.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, predicted earlier Wednesday it would be “fascinating to see how other candidates handle him because they've just begun to push Cain off the cliff on this matter.”
And yet despite disapproving public remarks earlier this week from Mr. Romney and Jon Huntsman, the former Massachusetts governor, perhaps reading the mood of the crowd, failed to pounce when given an opportunity.
Sharon Bialek, a 50-year-old registered Republican from Chicago, held an explosive news conference on Monday to allege that Mr. Cain pushed his hand up her skirt and attempted to shove her head towards his crotch after she approached him in 1997 about getting her job back at the restaurant association. When she complained, she alleges he replied: “You want a job, don't you?”
Inspired by Ms. Bialek's public statements, a previously unidentified accuser also came forward to reveal her identity. Karen Kraushaar -- also a registered Republican -- said she'd welcome a joint news conference during which all four victims detail their allegations.
Ms. Bialek said on Wednesday she's all for the idea, and praised Ms. Kraushaar, now an employee at the Internal Revenue Service, for coming forward. Mr. Jillson predicted Ms. Kraushaar won't be the last.
“These things don't go away; more and more details tend to emerge and people tend to start talking,” Mr. Jillson said. “I can't see how he doesn't succumb to this soon.”