Texas Gov. Rick Perry is heading back to New Hampshire Friday for the first time since the 2012 election—just a week after he was indicted for abuse of power back home.
And in an odd way, the indictment's timing may have been opportune for Perry. Granite State Republicans, jumping to his defense, say the charges are likely to have little effect on the way the state's GOP voters view Perry and have actually helped stoke interest in his visit. And that notice gives Perry a bigger platform to try to prove to New Hampshire voters that his disastrous 2012 presidential run, which hit particularly low lows in the state, is truly a thing of the past.
Mike Dennehy, Perry's New Hampshire adviser, argues the indictment news will be a "net positive" for Perry's Granite State trip because it means he's getting national attention as a result—which means he can draw bigger crowds to the events he attends.
"I do think people are paying attention to it. "¦ It's certainly built tremendous intrigue in advance of his visit this week," he said. "The response and the support he has received, overwhelming support, has only helped to build that intrigue for the governor."
Perry has come out swinging in the wake of the indictment news last Friday, blasting the allegations in a press conference and releasing a video through his political committee, RickPAC, called "Setting the Record Straight." He's gotten support not just from Republicans, but from Democrats—former Obama aide David Axelrod called the charges "pretty sketchy"—and editorial boards from national news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
"This is seen for what it is: it's a political stunt," said Jim Merrill, a veteran operative who ran Mitt Romney's New Hampshire operations and is currently unaffiliated for 2016. "In New Hampshire, I think it'll end up being a real big applause line for him."
Indeed, in the wake of the indictment news last Friday, New Hampshire Republicans have pretty much universally come to his defense. In a statement Monday, New Hampshire GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Horn called the accusations "ridiculous."
"It appears that partisan political operatives are trying to smear the governor for demanding accountability from a politician who had lost the public's confidence after she was convicted of a crime and thrown in jail," she said.
Former Gov. John Sununu, too, a GOP fixture in the state, told the Washington Post that the indictment is "insane" and "blatantly wrong and dishonest."
The more pressing issue for Perry on this trip is to prove that he's a different candidate than he was in 2012—and that he's going to put time and effort into New Hampshire, which was less a priority for him in 2012 than Iowa and South Carolina. (He came in sixth that year, with less than one percent of the votes.) In one particularly unusual moment of a campaign that contained several, Perry gave a speech in New Hampshire that prompted questions from journalists about whether he had been drunk or on drugs at the event, which Perry denied.
Veteran New Hampshire operatives say voters there are willing to give Perry a second chance—but that he needs to use it carefully.
"If Rick Perry were to run again "¦ New Hampshire would give him a fair shot: he has a lot to commend him," Merrill said. "His margin for error is just much smaller than other prospective candidates who haven't run previously "¦ because of how poorly his 2012 campaign went."
Perry needs to do three things on this trip to help convince the state's GOP activists that he's serious, said New Hampshire Republican strategist Jamie Burnett: Help out the state and local Republican Party, reconnect with 2012 supporters, and get favorable coverage. His schedule, which includes events for the local and state GOP, will help with the first and second, while the national headlines and attention surrounding his indictment can aid him in the third.
Plus, Perry's message of what he and his team have accomplished in Texas—one he's already taken on the road to other states in recent months—could play well with the small-government, even libertarian-leaning New Hampshire GOP electorate.
"New Hampshire's a tough state for a Southern governor, but he does have some philosophical beliefs and things in his record that would appeal to people up there," said veteran national GOP strategist Charlie Black. "He ought to go to New Hampshire and talk about what they've accomplished in Texas—being against big government is always a big issue in New Hampshire."
The would-be candidate has made two similar, multi-day trips to Iowa this summer, one in July and another in August; those trips helped convince Iowa activists that Perry is new and improved these days.
Like his recent trips to Iowa, this New Hampshire visit is a sign Perry is taking laying his 2016 groundwork early and seriously: He's attending six events over two days, including a luncheon with business leaders, an Americans for Prosperity event, and receptions for local, county and state GOPs. He also recently held a press call with Horn, the GOP chairwoman, to criticize President Obama and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on immigration and border security issues, a sign he's staying connected with the state even when he's not there in person.
Unlike Iowa, one thing that won't be on the agenda for this trip is a campaign event with any specific GOP candidate. Dennehy said Perry will not campaign for any New Hampshire Republicans—including likely Senate nominee Scott Brown—until after the Sept. 9 primary, but he'll make at least one trip back this fall for that purpose.
"I think people are still open to taking him very seriously as a competitive candidate for the nomination," Burnett said. "A trip like this, and any subsequent trips [to New Hampshire], are going to be really important for him."