STEVE INSKEEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Presidential candidates and voters, alike, sometimes get upset about gotcha-questions: queries from reporters that seem designed to embarrass candidates.
INSKEEEP: But this year, the Republican contenders have spent many hours in front of live TV cameras, and some have not needed gotcha-questions. They've done a perfectly good job of getting themselves.
MONTAGNE: That includes an excruciating moment in last night's debate that Texas Governor Rick Perry would like to forget. It involves a fact that he forgot, as we'll hear in a moment.
INSKEEEP: Perry's mistake was one of several dramatic exchanges in the debates, sponsored by the business channel CNBC.
Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This was a debate about the economy and the sluggish pace of job creation. The event got underway without opening statements and the CNBC anchors went right into questions. The first was about the financial turmoil in Italy, and what should be done to keep U.S. markets from being dragged down further as a result.
Herman Cain was first. He started by pointing blame on President Obama. He went on.
HERMAN CAIN: We must sure that our currency is sound. A dollar must be a dollar when we wake up in the morning. Just like 60 minutes is in an hour a dollar must be a dollar.
GONYEA: Then it was Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
MITT ROMNEY: There will be some who say here, that banks in the U.S. that have Italian debt that we have to save them as well. My view is no, no, no. We do not need to step in to bailout banks, either in Europe, or banks here in the U.S.
GONYEA: And the same question to former Utah Governor John Huntsman.
JOHN HUNTSMAN: So if you want a window into what this country is going to look like in the future if we don't get on top of our debt, you're seeing it play out in Europe right now.
GONYEA: This being Michigan, the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler was next. Today those companies are making money again. Many thousands of jobs were saved. But that wasn't the bottom-line for Mitt Romney. Romney was born here. His father, a former Michigan governor, once ran a car company, but Romney still insists the bailout was a bad idea.
ROMNEY: My view with regards to the bailout was that whether it was President Bush or by President Obama, it was the wrong way to go. I said, from the very beginning, they should go through a managed bankruptcy process – a private bankruptcy process.
GONYEA: That's a position that could hurt Romney in Michigan if he's the nominee, but it's a common view among these GOP hopefuls.
Here's Texas Governor Rick Perry.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: We are not going to pick winners and losers from Washington, D.C. That we're going to trust capital markets and private sector to make the decisions, and let the consumers pick winners and losers.
GONYEA: CNBC's Maria Bartiromo then broached the subject that has dominated the campaign for more than a week: The allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain. There were boos in the audience when the subject was mentioned.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
MARIA BARTIROMO: You know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues. Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?
CAIN: The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion, based on unfounded accusations. That's...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: The other candidates did not weigh in, instead the questions shifted back to the economy. But well into the second hour, Governor Perry started talking about the burdens of regulations. He said three complete federal departments could be eliminated: Education, Commerce and...
PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with, the Education, the Commerce - and I can't. And let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GONYEA: He struggled to think of it for more than a minute, other candidates offered suggestions. But it was not until Perry was asked a different question later on that he remembered he'd wanted to finger the Energy Department.
The lapse was painfully awkward for Perry and many of those watching. Perry was once leading this field with 30 percent in the polls, but weak showings in the debates have knocked him down to 10 percent or less. As soon as the debate ended, Perry himself did damage control - walking into the press room to spin his own performance.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But, Governor, what happened in there?
PERRY: Yeah, I stepped in it, man. Yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was.
GONYEA: As for his future as a candidate, Perry insisted he's not done.
PERRY: I'll be in South Carolina on Saturday and hopefully I'll remember the Energy Department. Thanks, everybody. Thank y'all.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GONYEA: Each of this campaign's debates has been intriguing in its own way. The next one is on Saturday in South Carolina.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Rochester, Michigan.