The experience was probably the same whether you were in the "spin-room" by the university auditorium in Michigan where the rivals were debating or watching on television.
It was agonising.
For myself, I just knew, even as Rick Perry started his sentence, that the tail-end of it was going to elude him. Of all the clangers and boobs of the pre-, pre-presidential campaign, the failure of Texas Governor Perry to identify the third of the three federal agencies he was vowing to shut down was the most astonishing. It lasted 53 seconds. You can hang yourself comprehensively in 53 seconds.
The reviews for his debating skills were bad enough before Michigan.
He was quite wan when, almost as if by magic, he appeared beside me in the spin-room minutes after the debate was over (candidates usually send surrogates to talk to the likes of us). He made a joke about his Texan boots and stepping in cow poop to send two messages: that he has a sense of humour about himself - he had said "oops" on live TV - and he wasn't about to let one simple brain freeze distract him.
In recent weeks he has spoken of the eight justices of the United States Supreme Court - every American schoolchild knows there are nine (eight associate justices and one chief justice) - and called the late Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, "Kim Jong the Second". While advocating the quick construction of the so-called Keystone XI pipeline that will link the Canadian oil sands with US refineries on the Gulf Coast, he said: "Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil we don't have to buy from a foreign source." So the US has absorbed Canada at last.
Romney, the ex-Governor of Massachusetts, is smoother than an anaesthetist's lance and about as numbing. The worst that Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, can say about Romney is that he once put the dog on the roof of the car on a family trip to Canada (it's true).
But the greatest fear of his handlers is his coming off as elitist. Heaven forfend he is caught windsurfing like the Democratic nominee John Kerry was back in 2004. Romney is more careful and calculating than his friend from Texas or other candidates. Put him in any political minefield and he will slalom through safely with all the right phrases. Yet his ouch moment eventually came in a debate early last month. He offered to bet Perry US$10,000 ($12,790) that something he had just said about his political memoir, No Apology, was wrong. That's a whole season of windsurfing. Romney has had other awkward moments, such as asking CNN's Anderson Cooper to restore order when he and Perry came close to calling each other names.
Part of Gingrich's appeal is that he often forsakes slaloming in favour of doing what he wants. In the latter category, he took a Greek cruise with Calista, his wife, last May, prompting a mass exodus of campaign staff who felt he should have been, well, campaigning. He protested that he wanted to see the Greek financial crisis up close (from A Deck, presumably). Probably more toxic to his chances was his blowing off Congressman Paul Ryan's plan on reforming the Medicare programme, calling it the worst kind of "social engineering". Many conservatives still can't forgive him.
As for Huntsman, the former Obama envoy to Beijing and one-time Utah Governor, the clue to his difficulties is before you. His name is Jon, but the "h" crept on to media badges on the day of his campaign launch before the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The press divined at once that his candidacy was "Amateur Hour at the Apollo", an impression he has not been able to correct.
There is the other matter of his unwillingness to ingratiate himself to the party's conservative wing like everyone else. Huntsman forgot that there is little place for intellectual integrity in politics.
The dear departed ...Herman CainCain had an apple pie voice and an irresistible twinkle. Of course, it was that irresistibility that seemingly forced Cain, who once sold pizza slices, to be more gallant than he has allegedly been in the past and to pull out. Whether or not you believed the allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, Cain had a talent for gaffes that would have surely sunk him anyway.
He froze one day in November when asked a straightforward question about President Barack Obama's policies on Iraq. In his fumbling, he almost outdid Perry. In Miami he showed that he knew that Cuban was spoken in Cuba.
Bachmann established herself as unreliable with the facts among rivals and many voters. How else could she finish last in Iowa when in August she won the state's straw poll? She did it herself with one interview when she tore into Perry for obliging young girls in Texas to be vaccinated for the HPV virus. The vaccine, she said, could cause mental retardation.
Medical experts were appalled. She showed confusion about Libya's location. "First he put us in Libya, now he's put us in Africa," she said, referring to Obama's deployment of special forces in central Africa to counter the Lord's Resistance Army.
She said she was only joking when she described Hurricane Irene and an earthquake in the eastern United States as a warning from God to get politicians' attention to Washington's debt and deficit problem. Most damagingly, Bachmann, who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, promised to mimic the spirit of Waterloo's own John Wayne. The only problem was Waterloo's John Wayne was not the beloved movie star, but rather John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer.
- Independent, AP