Rick Perry in New Hampshire: Evangelical cowboy faces a rough ride

A conservative Christian, Gov. Rick Perry is expected to run strongest in the South. His attempts to make inroads in New Hampshire Thursday showed mixed signs of success.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry shakes hands with workers during a campaign visit to Epoch Homes Thursday in Concord, N.H.

If Texas Gov. Rick Perry has an inner Evangelical cowboy, he kept it on a tight rein during his second day in the Granite State Thursday. Save for an oversize belt buckle, a couple quick “God bless yous,” and a relaxed gait that comes off as saddle soreness, Governor Perry was all suit and tie, and jobs, jobs, jobs.

The impressions that Perry makes in New Hampshire are important. When it comes to the 2012 presidential primary season, this is seen as "Romney country" – bordering Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney was governor, and also more in line with Mr. Romney's centrist platform.

But New Hampshire could provide a glimpse of Perry's prospects for success – both in the primaries and in a potential general election faceoff with President Obama. While the conservative Perry, an overt Evangelical Christian, seems likely to win wide support across the South, any show of strength in a purple state like New Hampshire – neither red nor blue – would bolster his campaign and point to the potential for broader appeal among November voters.

Perry has much to gain and little to lose from New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary early next year, it would seem. But based on the reactions from his first official campaign foray here, state residents are mixing some skepticism with a curiosity to see what all the buzz is about.

A crowd of about 100 greeted Perry at his first stop, Portsmouth, with half a dozen people holding up signs of support and opposition outside a café, Popovers on the Square. The crowd was split between Democrats who came to challenge the governor with questions (or to shout at him), unsuspecting vacationers to the seaside town, and undecided voters who wanted to see what he had to say.

“He was very engaging,” says Michele Austin, a new resident of Portsmouth, who spoke with the governor and is looking for work. “I would consider" voting for him.

Others, though, expressed concern over the governor’s stance on global warming, which he referred to as “a scientific theory that hasn't been proven” in Bedford yesterday.

“I asked him, Did he believe in global warming, and he said he thought the science was still out on that matter,” says Portsmouth resident Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat and a former New Hampshire state senator who spoke with the governor. “I do not want a president who’s not paying attention to science.”

Michael Frandzel, also a Portsmouth resident, was also distressed by the comments the governor made about global warming, and he said he was also turned off by the governor’s display of his Christianity. For instance, Perry hosted a national day of prayer in Houston earlier this month.

“He’s just pushed conservative Christian, Christian, Christian, Christian,” says Mr. Frandzel. “I’m not Christian.”

The crowd at the governor’s lunch stop at Harvey’s Bakery and Coffee Shop in Dover was smaller and lacked the hostility seen in Portsmouth. Perry bought a birthday cake for his daughter at the front counter, then sat down for lunch with Jack Kimball, the New Hampshire GOP chair.

“I’m very impressed with him,” says Marion Bartlett, a retired teacher from Dover, standing outside the dining room. “What I like about him is he’s gutsy.”

“He looks gruff, and he looks like he’s got a mean exterior,” Ms. Bartlett says. But after she saw him in person Thursday morning, she has a different impression. “I like the honesty, and he seems fearless.”

For now, Perry is Bartlett’s top pick, but she’s open to other contenders. Her husband, Ron, a retired engineer, is on the fence but leaning toward Romney. Still, Mr. Bartlett says he’s not bothered by Perry’s Evangelical side or his take on global warming.

Another man standing outside the dining room, Glenn Gagnon, was up from Methuen, Mass., to see the governor. He’s a New Englander who sees southern roots as an indication of a strong work ethic.

“I think we’re lazy up here,” Mr. Gagnon says.

Later in the afternoon, around 2 p.m., Perry made his final stop of the day, a factory tour and speech at Epoch Homes, a modular home manufacturer, in Pembroke. The governor toured the factory, then spoke to about 10 workers and a few members of the public.

His opening comments clearly were not targeted to his audience, but the national press in attendance: He called the Obama administration’s call for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down "long overdue."

The rest of the talk, though, was focused on how government regulations are getting in the way of economic growth.

“We just need to get you all back working again, and more Americans like you working again, free up the country to really make a difference,” Perry said.
He finished: “God bless you, thank you all."

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