Will Rick Perry Break the Mold in New Hampshire?

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

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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.

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

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