After Epic Debate Gaffe, Perry Backers Begin to Question Their Investment

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Rick Perry speaks during a debate at Oakland University on Nov. 9, 2011 in Rochester, Michigan.

Tony Leon started this election cycle recruiting donors for Mitt Romney. But when Rick Perry entered the race, he decided to help the Texas governor. Now, Leon’s not so sure. “Rick Perry’s debate performances, including last night’s demonstration, have caused me to question my support,” Leon told TIME on Thursday. “At the end of the day, the debates do not make the President nor should they. But, at the same time, I’ve grown to appreciate of Newt Gingrich because of his debate performances. I haven’t given a dime yet to Newt, but I now think he’s the best choice of all the candidates for somebody who can bring the country back together.”

Leon is just one of dozens of major Perry donors rethinking their backing in the wake of one of the worst debate gaffes in recent political history. Perry’s 56-seconds of brain freeze as he tried to name the third federal agency he’d abolish as President, which culminated in a painful “Ooops,” will go down as one of the defining moments of his campaign. And many of Perry’s own moneymen worry that he won’t be able to overcome it. “I’ve heard a lot of concern from folks – not just today but over the last few weeks,” said one Perry bundler from New York. “It kind of encapsulated a lot of those concerns. It was brutal.”

The problem with the gaffe was that it underlined Perry’s weaknesses. Not only did it show he’s a poor debater, but it reinforced the idea that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to be President. “Do I think he is winning in the polls and in the debates? Absolutely not,” says Ricky Becnel, a citrus nurseryman in Belle Chase, Louisiana, who maxed out his donation to Perry in September. “He’s having trouble verbalizing.”

While many bundlers outside of Texas voiced concerns about Perry, or, like Leon, said they’re moving on, Perry still has home court advantage in one of the richest states for political donations in the union. In fact, he raised 57% of his $17.2 million third quarter haul from Texas. The governor is known for having a long memory and, win or lose, deep-pocketed Lone Star residents will want to have his ear long after the primaries are over.

So, Perry will still likely be able to raise enough money to contend. His competition in the fundraising department isn’t fierce–Perry outraised Romney in the last quarter by $2 million, nearly outpacing the rest of the field combined.

And the race is far from over. Becnel says he still supports Perry. So does Roly Marante, a Miami bundler for Perry. “Yes, a lot of the damage has been self inflicted, unforced,” Marante says. “And, yes, Saturday Night Live is going to be very interesting this week. But the fact is everybody’s still shopping. Romney’s been running for six years and he still can’t close the deal… Newt Gingrich slipped up early in this race and he seems to be surging right now.”

Many donors are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I’ve been there and done that. I felt for him. Your mind goes blank sometimes. I think he has proved he is human. I think he needs to stay in there—I think it will come back around for him,” says Paul Dean Miller, an owner of a construction company in Benton, Illinois, who maxed out his donation to Perry. Still, Miller ominously added, “I don’t know if he’s going to make it, so I guess Herman Cain would be a consideration.”

With reporting by Elizabeth Dias in Washington.