ABC’s Michael Falcone and Emily Friedman report:
MAULDIN, S.C. — Mitt Romney said he was just throwing his fellow Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, a lifeline at Wednesday night’s debate as the Texas governor struggled through an answer about eliminating government departments.
“I actually mentioned the EPA as a possible department that he was thinking about,” Romney said on Friday in response to a reporter’s question about the cringe-worthy moment at the debate. Perry spent nearly a full minute trying to name the third department he would get rid of if elected.
During the course of Perry’s meandering response — “It’s three agencies of government, when I get there that are gone — Commerce, Education and, the, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see” — Romney chimed in with what seemed like a helpful suggestion.
“EPA?” Romney offered from two podiums away.
“EPA, there you go,” Perry said with a chuckle and a slap to his lectern.
The debate moderator, CNBC’s John Harwood, pressed: “Seriously? Is the EPA the one you were talking about?”
“No, sir, no sir,” Perry replied, unable for another half-minute to summon the name of the third agency — the Department of Energy.
“Most times in the debates I’m concentrated on my own performance and my own mistakes,” the former Massachusetts governor said on Friday while campaigning at a barbeque restaurant in South Carolina . “I can think of a few, but I’m not going to rehearse them for you. We all make mistakes and I’m more concerned about my own than anybody else’s, and I wish Rick the very best.”
Romney has even received praise for his apparent assist. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker called it a “gesture of active empathy,” declaring that Romney was “a nice guy in a season of nastiness.”
The former Massachusetts governor, who was campaigning in this important early nominating state one day ahead of the 10th presidential debate of the primary season, also offered a subtle hint that he may not be committed to participating in the full schedule of debates yet to come.
“We’ve got a lot of debates. I think we’ve had like 10 already, maybe 11 now, and we may have what four or five more to come, so he and I both have plenty of time to get our message across in the best way we can.” (There are actually more than a dozen additional debates currently scheduled.)
As for Perry, Wednesday night’s gaffe continues to haunt him.
Earlier in the day, at a Veterans Day parade in Columbia, S.C. one woman taunted the Texas governor, challenging him to name all three departments. “Come on. You can do it, three,” the woman shouted.
Perry ignored her.
ABC’s Arlette Saenz contributed reporting from Columbia, S.C.