Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry
Brian Snyder  /  REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry gestures as he walks to his vehicle after attending a house party hosted by State Representative Pam Tucker in Greenland, New Hampshire August 13, 2011.
updated 8/17/2011 1:12:24 PM ET 2011-08-17T17:12:24

For a Southern presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been spending valuable time early on in New Hampshire, a secular state not known for its embrace of evangelical Republicans. But the time he’s spending here — and the fact that his political guru, Dave Carney, is a native intimately familiar with New Hampshire politics — shows that he’s playing for keeps in a state that could determine his prospects in both the primary and against President Obama.

His campaign foray Wednesday morning into Bedford Village at the state’s Politics and Eggs breakfast is a significant marker, providing an early road test of whether he can expand his support beyond the South and evangelical voters. The 235 expected attendees are the types that Perry will need to win over if he is to retain the top-tier status he earned instantly with his entrance last week.

Video: Texas Tall Tales? (on this page)

If Perry can play in New Hampshire, even a solid second-place finish could rattle the local favorite Mitt Romney, and boost his presidential chances greatly. He’s already showing signs he’s intently focused on the state — his stop will be the second in five days since kicking off his campaign. If Bill Clinton was the Comeback Kid in New Hampshire in 1992, Perry could be the governor who defied the demographic odds in 2012.

"There's no question that he has a good opportunity to make a good first impression. There's a lot of people interested to see if he can live up to the hype," said former New Hampshire Republican chairman Fergus Cullen. But, cautioned Cullen, "All of the things that are being said about Rick Perry were said about Fred Thompson four years ago."

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Perry will be arriving in New Hampshire at a time when questions of whether he has broad appeal outside the tea party crowd are heating up. He accused Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of “almost treasonous behavior” and criticized the president’s lack of military service in no uncertain terms. He’ll find out shortly whether that incendiary rhetoric will play well with New Hampshire Republicans — and the independents who are allowed to participate in the primaries.

"We got great respect for this state and your first in the nation primary. I’m going to be here a lot," Perry said Wednesday morning to the inn's jammed function hall, bedecked with holiday lights across the beams.

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Nodding at the state's motto, Perry said, "Live free or die. You gotta love that. It’s remindful of a little place down in Texas called the Alamo."

But Perry, at least in New Hampshire, has been tailoring his message toward his record of creating jobs in his home state, and his opposition to excessive regulations — a libertarian message that he hopes will resonate in a state whose motto is Live Free or Die. It’s no accident that Wednesday’s breakfast event is business-focused, hosted by the New England Council, a regional lobbying group that eschews partisan politics. Perry plans to speak of Texas's low-tax, low-regulation record, and won’t emphasize his religious faith, according to sources connected to the event.

It’s a message that will be tailored in part by Carney, one of Perry’s closest advisers whose home base is in New Hampshire and who has worked closely with many of the state’s political leaders.

Sean Mahoney, a Manchester businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2010, was part of a Granite State group that met with Perry in downtown Austin earlier this month. He said “the most important thing we expressed to him” revolved not around ideology, but the necessity of a “grassroots, retail-oriented campaign.”

“One of the most important things is respecting the process in New Hampshire,” Mahoney said. “You're working at the dumps and the diners and people's homes.”

Perry's willingness, at least early on, to spend political capital in the state could prove beneficial. Even before he announced his candidacy — all the way back in June — he landed a keynote speaking gig at a fundraising dinner for Cornerstone Action, a conservative group in New Hampshire. New Hampshire conservatives are already grumbling that Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., canceled a town hall forum in Windham last weekend.

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At the same time, Perry's early focus on the state is an acknowledgement of the challenges he faces here. In a Granite State poll conducted last month, Perry only tallied 4 percent of the vote, well behind Romney, Bachmann and even Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Since the advent of the modern primary system, Southerners have fared poorly in the Granite State. In 2008, evangelical-favorite Mike Huckabee catapulted out of Iowa with a caucus win and promptly cratered in New Hampshire, picking up 11 percent of the vote. George W. Bush famously lost to Sen. John McCain in the 2000 primary, winning only 30 percent of the vote — 18 points behind McCain. Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm dropped out days before the 1996 New Hampshire primary, with his support nearly non-existent in the state (he won 752 votes).

Only 23 percent of Republican primary voters in 2008 self-identified as evangelical, compared to 60 percent in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. Perry, for his part, has relied on the evangelical vote for support in Texas. In 2010, he won a whopping 84 percent among evangelicals, but just 42 percent of the rest of the electorate. If that breakdown holds in New Hampshire, Perry’s ceiling would be around 20 percent.

”We are a typical New England state in that religion is not something that always comes into a discussion of a person's public life,” said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Romney supporter who has donated the maximum amount possible out to the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign.

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But for Perry, the name of the game in New Hampshire isn’t necessarily a win, but a better-than-expected showing. In 1992, Bill Clinton finished a strong second in the state, making him the Democrat to beat, but he only captured 24 percent of the vote in the primary. Even Perry boosters don’t expect him to top Romney, the regional favorite who was governor next door and owns a vacation home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

His biggest task at hand is making a solid first impression, convincing enough of the famously fickle New Hampshire GOP primary electorate that he not only is a mainstream conservative, but is an electable nominee against Obama. He still has a lot of work to do on that front.

"[Democrats] will try to turn any nominee into George Bush the Second. Why make it easy for them?" Cullen said.

The article, "Perry Looks to Break the Mold in N.H.," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Texas Tall Tales?

  1. Closed captioning of: Texas Tall Tales?

    >>> texas governor rick perry has been making plenty of headlines this line and our friends at politifact thought they would look at the claims he the presidential est shiny field, mr. rick perry . we bring in bill adair . glad to have you there. let's get right to it. first line we tested, here it is, rick perry on the trail.

    >> they want to make -- if you're a tractor driver, if you drive your tractor across a public road , you're going to have to have a commercial driver 's license.

    >> now, rick perry has said this a few times about a supposed iowa law. what say you?

    >> that one gets a false on the truth-o-meter. this has become sort of a legend in agricultural circles that the government wants to do this but there's no truth to it. we talked to the department of transportation , there are no such plans to do this. it seems to be based on an idea that it was actually illinois that floated the idea, the feds have said they don't want to do it so false on the truth-o-meter for this one.

    >> don't mix up iowa and illinois. all right. here's the next rick perry sound bite , about his home state of texas .

    >> have the doom sayers forgotten that texas added more jobs in 2010 than any other state?

    >> all right, bill adair . true or false?

    >> true. he's right. and of course, thgs the central point of perry 's campaign, that he can do in the country what he's done in texas and that the economic growth they've had in texas can spread around the country. a lot of those gains were in the oil and gas industry partly because of a new type of drilling but he's -- overall he's right to truth on that one.

    >> all right. well, we know some of rick permry's opponents are out in full force , there's democratic congressman lloyd doggett said, 25 states have lower unkploimt than texas were tied with mississippi for more minimum wage jobs than anywhere else in the united states .

    >> that one also gets a true. this is a main counter point by democrats and we'll probably hear it at some point from republican opponents of perry that although he has had a lot of job gains, that those are not the high paying jobs. in this case, doggett is right so he gets a true.

    >> all right. here's another criticism rick perry got from a republican opponent, ron paul said this, his record as governor does not show him as a standout as actually being a conservative. he actually was the chairman for al gore at one time not too many years ago.

    >> what did you give that accusation?

    >> we gave that a mostly true. not too many years ago turns out to be 23 years ago so mostly true that the --

    >> a generation ago arguably but --

    >> exactly. but it's a good reminder. a lot of in that period in the late '80s and '90s, a lot of democrats, particularly southern democrats switched parties and became republicans. at the time perry was a democrat and was indeed chairman of gore's 1988 campaign in texas . so mostly true on that one. perry has been great for the truth-o-meter. we've done i think 69 fact checks of him with our partners the at politifact texas . we've got a lot more to do now.

    >> well, people ought to dig in and download the app, politifact, you have a lot of work to do, the presidential race and president obama 's town hauls, i expect no august vacation for you, bill.

    >> thanks, chuck.


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