WASHINGTON Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson framed an embarrassing lapse on foreign affairs as simple human error on Thursday after he responded to a question about a flashpoint in the Syrian civil war by asking, "What is Aleppo?"
The gaffe came during an MSNBC interview about the continuing battle for Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, which has been divided for years into government and rebel sectors and has been in the news daily in recent weeks.
"What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo," Johnson was asked.
"About Aleppo. And what is Aleppo?" he responded.
"You're kidding?" the MSNBC interviewer said.
"No," Johnson said.
"Aleppo is in Syria. ... It's the epicentre of the refugee crisis," the interviewer said.
"OK, got it. Got it," Johnson said.
The embarrassing exchange followed a forum on Wednesday night in which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump sought to showcase their national security and defence credentials.
Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, has been trying to turn the two major candidates' low approval ratings to his advantage in the race to win the Nov. 8 election.
However, he has just 8.6 support in the current average of opinion polls by website RealClearPolitics in a matchup with Clinton, Trump, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
While the Libertarian Party has long rejected U.S. military intervention abroad, the candidate's failure to recognise one of the most troubled spots in the Middle East drew ridicule and prompted speculation that his campaign was essentially over.
Clinton, asked at a news conference about Johnson's remarks, laughed and quipped, "You can look on the map and find Aleppo."
In a statement after the MSNBC interview, Johnson said the mistake showed he was human and explained that, when asked about Aleppo, he was thinking of an acronym and not the Syrian war.
"Can I name every city in Syria? No. Should I have identified Aleppo? Yes. Do I understand its significance? Yes," he said.
In the 2012 presidential election, Johnson set a record for most votes won by a Libertarian candidate - about 1 percent of the popular vote - and was aiming to attract disaffected Republicans and Democrats to sustain steady growth in the party.
The Libertarian agenda promotes civil liberties and a small-government agenda. Johnson has pledged to cut spending, stick to conservative fiscal policies and legalize marijuana.
Appearing on ABC's talk show "The View" later, Johnson reacted mildly to suggestions the gaffe would kill his campaign. "I guess people will have to make that judgment," he said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)