Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith National Debate Coach of the Year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.
(CNN) -- One is the loneliest number. Two can be as bad as one. And three, well ... um ... what was three again?
Three is hard. I'll start by quoting the silence heard around the political world during Wednesday night's CNBC Republican presidential debate. Here were Texas Gov. Rick Perry's words in the middle of one of his answers: "I will tell you: It's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see. ... OK. So Commerce, Education and the -- ... The third agency of government I would -- I would do away with the Education, the ... Commerce and -- let's see -- I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."
Oops? Oops? Did he just say oops on camera?
That was his comeback. Perry completed this painful journey not by telling the audience that remembering the third point wasn't as important as remembering his overall message. He didn't tell the audience that forgetting his third point in a debate was not as bad as forgetting how to run the country or fix the economy. He simply said, "Oops." And then the microphone went to one of his seven Republican rivals. Oops indeed.
This was seriously terrible. You might say that blunders happen in debates. After all, Perry is not the first, nor will he be the last, to have a mental lapse in a debate. Remember Jan Brewer's Arizona gubernatorial debate last year? When she appeared to have lost her train of thought in her opening statement and for about 15 seconds could only smile and laugh nervously as cameras rolled? That was one of the worst moments ever in a debate, and she still won the election. So the question is: How much damage will Perry's gaffe do?
It will do major damage. Here's why.
First, I've been evaluating debates for 20 years, and can tell you -- if you doubted it for a second -- that Perry's mental block was very, very bad. One reason is that the question he was asked at the time wasn't even about cutting agencies. It was about how he could work with Democrats across the aisle. But Perry wanted to add some flair, so he looked at Ron Paul in order to brag about how he would cut three different agencies (although still not as many as Paul's five) and then gave himself the self-induced wound.
What then made it worse was that Perry was asked twice if he could remember the third agency and he continued to draw a blank. Whatever credibility he had disappeared like his memory. It was a perfect example of a gotcha question, which everyone from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin complains about -- except that nobody even asked it. Perry did the gotcha on himself.
The more damning reason his mistake will hurt in the long run is because it gives the audience a consistent (and unfavorable) impression of Perry. One of the things I tell my communications classes is that people cling to first impressions. It's why first impressions are so difficult to overcome, especially if they are negative.
Unfortunately, if you have been watching these Republican presidential debates, your first impression, along with that of many other viewers, is that Rick Perry does not have the best grasp of the issues and he has a difficult time answering questions. Fair or not, this may turn people away from voting for him.
Lately the entire focus of Perry's team has been trying to change the public's first impression of their candidate. They believed these upcoming debates would help. After all, Perry couldn't get any worse, right? Oops. It turns out he could. And since many in the public have an unfavorable first impression, Perry's performance fed right into that.
Because of his poor first impression, Perry was the candidate who could least afford a slip-up of this magnitude. Instead of overcoming that negative first impression, he did the opposite. He cemented it. As in cement shoes. And Perry is anchored to them as he is falling into a deep Texas waterhole.
Up to now, Perry's cumulative debating performance has been pretty weak. I cringe every time I watch Perry give any answer, since my expectations are that he might forget what he is talking about or begin an undisciplined, meandering ramble and end up mumbling some nonsense under his breath. While he may never give another poor answer in a debate, I still expect it. And therein lies the problem. It has now become a lasting impression.
Some blunders cannot be overcome. While Jan Brewer won her election, she was debating against a Democrat when her poor debating performance occurred. Republicans had no other choice but to vote for her or the Democrat. That's not the case with Perry. There are other Republicans that voters will now begin to gravitate toward.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.