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Five things we learned from Wednesday's GOP debate

By CNN Political Reporter Peter Hamby
updated 7:07 AM EST, Thu November 10, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry struggles to remember one of the federal agencies he would eliminate as president
  • Mitt Romney continued to defend his opposition to the government bailout of the auto industry
  • Debate moderators were booed for asking Herman Cain about the sexual harassment scandal

Rochester, Michigan (CNN) -- Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Michigan was almost entirely focused on economic issues, but the forum offered some seriously revealing moments about each of the candidates.

The night's biggest loser was, without a doubt, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who struggled uncomfortably for nearly a full minute to recall which three federal agencies he would eliminate as president.

"Commerce, Education, and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see," Perry said, looking puzzled and searching his notes.

Finally, mercifully, Perry admitted he could not remember and simply gave up.

His only excuse: "Oops."

Here are five things we learned from the debate:

'Oops' is right

The problem with Perry's excruciating mental lapse about the Energy Department wasn't simply the moment itself, even though the "Oops" heard 'round the world is destined for "Saturday Night Live" infamy.

Perry's failure to name the third of three federal agencies he would eliminate as president was entirely self-inflicted, and the moment played directly into a pre-existing narrative about the Texas governor: that he is not ready for prime time.

That storyline is devastating in a political climate when Republicans are hungry for a brawler who can go head-to-head with President Barack Obama in the general election.

Perry stumbles on plan, Cain fends off allegations

In a sign of how serious Perry's team viewed the blunder, the candidate himself was trotted into the post-debate spin room to address reporters himself -- a rare event for a perceived top-tier contender.

Perry made a self-deprecating joke and said the agency he was searching for was the Department of Energy.

"I'm sure glad I had my boots on because I sure stepped in it out there," Perry told a pack of reporters. "The bottom line is, I may have forgotten (The Department of) Energy, but I didn't forget my conservative principles."

Asked if the incident was disqualifying, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom would only let the moment speak for itself.

"There is nothing I could say that could darken the night that Rick Perry had," he told reporters.

Another one of Romney's senior aides, Stuart Stevens, simply shook his head and refused to talk about it.

Brutal.

Romney and the free market, sitting in a tree...

It's no secret that the private sector has a special place in Romney's heart, second only to his wife Ann.

And so he doubled down Wednesday on two controversial positions that Democrats have hammered him on for weeks: his opposition to the government bailout of the auto industry, and his criticism of federal efforts to modify home loans and prevent foreclosures.

The Michigan native penned a New York Times op-ed in 2008 titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," arguing that a "managed bankruptcy," not a federal check, would ensure a newly competitive automotive industry.

Appearing in Michigan, a state where even the Republican governor has given President Obama credit for rescuing General Motors and Chrysler with $60 billion in federal funds, Romney would not budge from his position.

"It was the wrong way to go," Romney explained. "I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process."

Romney has also taken heat from Democrats for telling a Nevada newspaper in October that the government should allow the foreclosure process to "run its course and hit the bottom," instead of trying to help troubled homeowners adjust their mortgages.

He echoed the sentiment on Wednesday.

"Our friends in Washington today, they say, Oh, if we've got a problem in housing, let's let government play a bigger role," he said. "That's the wrong way to go. Let markets work. Help people get back to work. Let them buy homes. You'll see home prices come back up if we allow this market to work."

Ciao, Europe

Wednesday's debate was focused primarily on economic matters, and the looming European debt crisis was on the menu right out the gate.

The candidates diverged on a number of topics throughout the evening, but the two Republicans atop the polls agree that the U.S. government should not intervene in Europe, no matter how serious the threat of Italian or Greek default -- even if the vitality of American markets are at stake.

"There will be some who say here that banks in the U.S. that have Italian debt, that we ought to help those, as well," Romney said. "My view is no, no, no. We do not need to step in to bail out banks either in Europe or banks here in the U.S. that may have Italian debt."

Cain, who has yet to demonstrate serious foreign policy chops, stumbled through his answer but said that Europe is none of our business.

"There's not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now, because they have -- they're really way beyond the point of return that we -- we as the United States can save them," Cain said.

Newt hates the media (and loves the media)

Give Newt Gingrich credit: He's sticking with what works.

His insistence on attacking the media in nearly every GOP debate has paid dividends. Gingrich is trending upward in nearly every national and state poll, thanks largely to punchy and policy-heavy performances in the nationally-televised forums.

The former House Speaker has accused the media of focusing on horse race politics and "gotcha moments" instead of asking questions about jobs and the economy.

Those are surefire applause lines in a Republican Party long skeptical of the press.

On Wednesday, he sparred with CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo about being allotted 30 seconds to explain his health care plan.

He called another question "absurd." At one point, he went so far as to say that "It's sad that the news media doesn't report accurately how the economy works."

And yet: Gingrich has relied on the media to boost his standing in the polls.

With a skimpy bank account and few staff left after a campaign implosion earlier this year, he has depended on debates -- "free media," in campaign parlance -- to get his message about and reboot his campaign.

It's working.

Someone get Herman Cain a briefing book!

Debate moderators were loudly booed for asking Herman Cain about the sexual harassment scandal that has completely engulfed the GOP race for nearly two weeks, a sign that Republicans are still rallying to the former pizza executive's defense.

Though Cain's likeability has taken a hit in the wake of the scandal, Republicans still appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

A poll out this week from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed that more than half of GOP voters have no concerns -- "none at all" -- about the harassment allegations.

But they might start to have concerns about Cain's viability as a candidate if he keeps dodging tough policy questions like he did on Wednesday.

Asked about a range of topics -- the Boeing plant in South Carolina at the center of a labor dispute, the Italian debt crisis, the mortgage crisis, and the stock market -- Cain repeatedly fell back on his favorite talking point: his 9-9-9 plan to reform the tax code.

He did it so often, in fact, that the audience and moderators began to laugh.

With candidates like Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sharing the stage and offering detailed policy ideas throughout the night, Cain's 9-9-9 act appeared increasingly shallow.

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