Will Rick Perry Break the Mold in New Hampshire?

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The Granite State doesn't typically go for evangelicals from the South, but the Texas governor is trying to change that

Rick Perry shaking hands - Jim Young : Reuters - banner.jpg

BEDFORD VILLAGE, N.H.--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.

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." 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.

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.

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.

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.

Image credit: Jim Young/Reuters

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Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily.

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