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Rick Perry sets out to court wary New Hampshire voters

To win the first primary, the Texas governor may have to overcome suspicions about his faith-based conservatism and comparisons to George W. Bush.

August 14, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newly declared candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, arrives for a house party in Greenland, N.H.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newly declared candidate for the Republican… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)

Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry plunged into a New Hampshire fair on the second day of his presidential announcement tour in the brash and bold style that has been his trademark. With his entourage of Texas Rangers at his elbow, he strutted through the crowd, brown cowboy boots on his feet and Lone Star cuff links on his sleeves, giving sharp salutes and thumbs up to some voters and grabbing the shoulders of others in a warm and lusty hello.

He was swarmed, to be sure. But even at an event organized by conservative groups, some kept their distance as Perry worked his way through the lunch line and sat down at a picnic table, where he closed his eyes and offered a blessing before biting into his hamburger.

Of all the early primary states, secular New Hampshire may offer the best test of whether the broader presidential electorate is ready for another socially conservative, Southern governor who has talked openly about his faith and how it has guided his political life.

Unlike Iowa and South Carolina, where social conservatives dominate the Republican contests, GOP voters here tend to be more socially moderate. New Hampshire ranked as one of the least religious states in the country in a 2009 Gallup survey — 46% of poll respondents said religion was an important part of their daily lives, compared with 80% in South Carolina, where Perry announced his bid Saturday.

And it won't be just those Republicans whom Perry must win over before the state's first-in-the-nation primary early next year; independents, who tend to be more moderate, can participate in the GOP primary and have often provided the edge that leads to a win.

With some voters openly suspicious of faith-centered politicians, a number of Republican strategists say Perry's chances in New Hampshire — and nationally, were he to win the nomination — rest on whether he can keep a singular focus on economic issues without making voters leery about the role that religion plays in his thinking. As important, they said, is whether Perry can survive the comparisons to the last religious Texas governor to seek the presidency, George W. Bush, who had difficulty connecting to New Hampshire voters and was unpopular nationally when he left office two and a half years ago.

Marc Mears of Manchester, who attended a house party Friday night for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is one of the independent voters who won't consider Perry.

Mears regrets his vote for President Obama in 2008, saying that "Obama is so weak, he might as well be a kitten." Describing himself as "center-left on social issues," Mears said he was turned off by some of what he had been hearing about Perry — including reports that the Texas governor at least once expressed sympathy for those who favored secession.

"We had a swaggering governor from Texas run the country before. It didn't go so well," Mears said. He said he believes Romney is more centrist and will eventually swing back toward the center even though he must "run to his base" in the primaries. "I don't think Perry can do that," he said.

Even former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu — a Republican who is deciding between Perry and Mitt Romney — predicted that many GOP voters eager to oust Obama will be paying close attention to whether Perry is able to overcome the parallels to Bush that his opponents are already drawing.

"As much as I think Rick Perry is a good governor, as much as he is a good friend, I must confess a little concern that it would be easy for President Obama to morph him into George Bush every time he wanted to make a point on the campaign trail," Sununu said in an interview. "Gov. Perry's challenge is to somehow be a successful governor from Texas without carrying the burden of being a Republican presidential nominee that is a governor from Texas" after Bush.

Many locals point out that some Southerners have fared well here, including Democrats Bill Clinton in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. But others have not. Bush slid from a double-digit lead over Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2000 to a double-digit loss.

Patrick Griffin, a Bush consultant in 2000, noted that one major factor in his defeat was that he tried to run a television-style campaign as he had in Texas.

Bush also traveled with a large entourage and kept voters at arm's length. That offended New Hampshire voters, who want to prod and question their candidates.

Perry showed some early signs of avoiding that trap as he worked the crowd Sunday, wrapping his arm around the waist of a woman who ran through her list of questions for him as he walked in and standing inches from the face of man who buttonholed him about whether he believed in allowing prayer in school.

When asked by a reporter whether his Texas roots and the comparisons to Bush would hinder his chances of winning a general election, he replied, "We're not all carbon copies in Texas; we're a little bit different."

But as his caravan drove out of the parking lot, it would have been hard for Perry to miss a handwritten sign again reminding him of the issue. "Texas governor," the sign said. "Been there, done that."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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