Can Rick Perry snatch the New Hampshire primary from Mitt Romney?

A new poll of likely voters in the New Hampshire GOP primary shows Mitt Romney at 36 percent, followed by Rick Perry at 18 percent. It was ‘a strong first showing’ for Mr. Perry, NH Journal said.

Cheryl Senter/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks in Bedford, N.H., on Aug. 17.

Imagine former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, comfortably campaigning in next-door New Hampshire, keeping the home fires warm as he heads toward an anticipated win in the first primary early in 2012. Then the pugnacious governor of Texas, Rick Perry, jumps in and threatens to take it all away.

Could Governor Perry actually succeed?

A poll released Wednesday of likely voters in the New Hampshire GOP primary shows Mr. Romney retaining his lead: 36 percent, followed by Perry at 18 percent, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 14 percent, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota at 10 percent. The poll, taken for NH Journal by the Republican firm Magellan Strategies, is the first out of New Hampshire since Perry entered the race on Aug. 13.

NH Journal called it “a strong first showing” for Perry in its poll.

But as expected, New Hampshire is still Romney’s to lose. And it’s too soon, really, to judge how Perry might do there. But as he makes his first campaign swing around the state Wednesday and Thursday, it’s clear he’s getting a serious look from Republican voters.

The big question is whether someone who is so culturally different from a typical New Hampshirite that he might as well be from Outer Mongolia can gain traction in the Granite State.

“Perry has all sorts of potential, some of it good, some bad,” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who is neutral in the primary race. “I do think it’s possible he could take off and be a very strong candidate, and I also think it’s possible that he could go nowhere.”

Mr. Cullen attended Perry’s appearance Wednesday morning at a business leaders’ breakfast and felt Perry didn’t perform all that well – he seemed tired – an impression shared by other attendees. But he had clearly gotten the memo on how to talk to New Hampshire voters: Don’t use religious language, don’t talk social issues. Perry, a devout evangelical who just hosted a big prayer rally in Houston on Aug. 6, focused on jobs and the economy.

Perry is also helped by the fact that his top political adviser, Dave Carney, is a native of New Hampshire, which gives the governor credibility with some of the state’s political insiders. And certainly Perry can boast big job creation as governor of Texas as a counterweight to Romney’s record as a businessman.

But whether enough New Hampshire Republicans can grow comfortable enough with Perry’s outsize Texas personality and thick drawl (eerily similar to President George W. Bush’s) to see him as the next president – and the best challenger to President Obama – is an open question. Look at the history of competitive New Hampshire Republican primaries, and you won’t find any true Southerners on the list of winners.

But Perry, in fact, does not need to win the New Hampshire primary. He just needs to do well enough, probably second, and take the fight to more comfortable territory – South Carolina, whose primary follows New Hampshire’s.

Andy Smith, director of polling at the University of New Hampshire, also attended Perry’s campaign event in Bedford, N.H., on Wednesday morning and agrees Perry wasn’t on his game. But, he adds, voters aren’t paying much attention yet, and won’t for quite some time.

Still, Perry faces two hurdles in New Hampshire.

“Perry is largely unknown here,” says Mr. Smith, whose latest survey (from early July) showed 42 percent of New Hampshire voters didn’t know who he was and an additional 9 percent didn’t know enough to state an opinion. “He has to do something to boost name recognition.”

The other hurdle, Smith says, is more fundamental. The New Hampshire Republican electorate has a more moderate tilt than, say, Iowa’s or South Carolina’s. He classifies about 60 percent of the state’s GOP voters as moderate, and Romney largely has that group to himself. (The other potential contender is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, but he’s still polling in low single digits there.)

Perry is competing for the remaining 40 percent of the vote, but so are Representative Paul, Representative Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, says it’s plausible Perry could do well in New Hampshire, but it could require a major time commitment.

“If he’s serious about making New Hampshire part of his equation, then something in the area of 25 to 30 percent [of the primary vote] is within reach,” Mr. Scala says. “That’s a scenario where it’s conceivable he could post a strong second, especially if Bachmann doesn’t move seriously into New Hampshire.”

The new Magellan survey found that Bachmann appeared not to get a bounce in New Hampshire from her victory in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll last Saturday. According to the survey, 84 percent of respondents said the straw poll had no impact on their decision on whom to support.

Bachmann also didn’t do herself any favors in the Granite State when she canceled a two-day visit after the straw poll and traveled instead to South Carolina.

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