Rick Perry is in New Hampshire this week with one mission: to see whether Republican primary voters believe in second chances.
His presidential ambitions started to fade here more than three years ago when he delivered a speech in Manchester that was so bizarre he later had to deny being drunk or drugged. Any hopes of moving to the White House vanished a few days later during his infamous “oops” moment when he forgot the name of one of three federal agencies he proposed to eliminate during a nationally televised debate.
In his first trip here since leaving the Texas governor’s mansion last month, the bravado from his last presidential campaign was gone – right along with the cowboy boots he no longer wears. He’s hoping he can convince voters he’s now ready to be who everyone thought he was in 2012: the man to unite the entire Republican Party.
“Granite Staters want to see you often, two or three times isn’t enough,” Perry said knowingly.
Voters here cherish their first-in-the-nation primary, particularly the influential role it plays, and seem willing to reconsider Perry’s second pitch.
“He’s much better this time. I even told him!” said Denise Pressinger, who helps run a food import and export business in Portsmouth.
His fashionable, black-rimmed glasses are the first big difference everyone notices.
A childhood eye injury flared up for Perry, whose vision was strong enough to allow him into the Air Force, in recent years. Instead of surgery, he opted for the glasses – with rims picked out by his wife, Anita, that lend him a bit of a hipster look.
Gone are his cowboy boots, which he said aggravated the back injury that left him in pain during the 2012 campaign. He’s maintained his impressive head of hair and the expressive mannerisms he’s always had, but the new look helps – at least a little – with the ‘I’m serious this time’ message Perry 2.0 wants to convey.
“He’s got a little bit different look,” said Phil Malone, a software product manager. “You know, I’m all for giving a second chance and seeing how it goes.”
Perry’s message comes in three parts: The formula that left the Texas economy booming can be scaled up. The United States needs a more aggressive foreign policy. And the bumper crop of fresh Republican faces heading toward presidential bids – especially senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio – aren’t battle-tested like he is.
“We took a chance with a young, articulate United States senator who didn’t have any record. And I happen to think we’re paying a price for it,” he said during an event at the Republican Women’s Club in Portsmouth.
Really, though, Perry’s bigger project at this stage is selling something more important: his own credibility.
In these early gatherings, the 14-year Texas governor is trying to demonstrate a sense of purpose – and a commitment to the process – that wasn’t evident in his previous campaign.
He entered the race late in the summer, too late for the kind of person-to-person retail politics that states like New Hampshire demand, and his eventual performance left voters uninspired. The one-time Republican front-runner wound up winning just 0.7% of the vote in New Hampshire – a state he’d mostly ignored – and dropped out shortly afterward.
“I think he was really confused – didn’t have his act together, really,” said Judy Scott, a retired New Hampshire activist who attended the Perry event in Portsmouth. “It’s really hard to know what his motivation was the first time around, but I think it was good for him because he did see that people are serious.”
Helping Perry is his affable personality; he seems to enjoy all the requisite glad-handing.
After his Portsmouth speech, Perry introduced himself to Malone’s wife, Stephanie, swooped up their nine-week-old baby, Lilly, and kissed her on the forehead. Then Perry pulled out his phone and showed the couple his own family photos.
“He’s great, he’s going through his phone, showing us pictures of his dog, his granddaughter. He seems very personable,” Stephanie Malone said.
“Down to earth,” her husband added.
Even a toned-down Perry brought red meat with him. He denounced Common Core education standards as a “one-size-fits all curriculum that comes out of Washington” and makes for “bad public policy” – despite the fact that the standards were originally developed by state education leaders.
He praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for a March visit to Washington, and lambasted President Barack Obama’s “feckless” approach to hostile foreign leaders.
He blamed Obama for “the lack of clear policies that send a powerful message that America’s going to be there for our allies.”
In dealing with ISIS, Perry said, the United States must “stomp out this absolute plague on western values. That’s what this is no less about.”
He leapt to his toes when he talked about an energy “renaissance” and touted the Keystone XL pipeline as “very important for America’s future.”
And perhaps his best moment – at least in front of a Republican crowd, and one that needed to be reminded of what Perry’s done since his 2012 debacle – came when he blasted Obama for turning down a visit to see the U.S.-Mexico border while the President was in Dallas for a fundraising trip.
“I don’t do photo ops,” Perry quoted Obama as saying.
It was, Perry said, at “that point, I knew I was not going to get any assistance from my federal government,” explaining his decision to deploy the Texas National Guard to stop an influx of undocumented, unaccompanied immigrant children.
Mostly, he talked Texas, including its zoos, arts districts, new museums and job creation figures.
He said the state’s approach is “not rocket science,” and consists of low taxes, business-friendly regulations, tort reform that limits over-the-top lawsuits and an education system with “accountable public schools.”
Perry made a foray off the usual GOP talking points to tout Texas’s environmental efforts. Regardless, he said, of whether audience members believed global warming was happening, it’s a good thing that his state’s carbon footprint shrunk by 9% while he was in office. He said everyone wants to live in a “place where the air is cleaner.”
“Leadership does matter, and there are very functional places in this country,” Perry said.
What he didn’t broach were any of the major drivers of long-term U.S. spending: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense.
Nancy Sununu, the wife of former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, said that Perry’s Texas-based message resonated.
“I think that he’s perfectly on line. But I think it’s a lot more difficult to do on the national level than it is to do in a state,” she said.
The trip seemed to help Perry advance his effort to put 2012 in the rearview mirror.
Ruth Cunniff, a Durham retiree, said Thursday night before Perry spoke at the Strafford County Lincoln Day dinner that he is “possibly tainted.”
“But he can come back from it. What I really like about him is how he really took it all in stride,” said Abigail Rooney, an accountant in Milton Mills. “He was able to laugh at himself – I really appreciated that.”
“And,” she said, “he admitted that he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, and is planning on being more prepared if he makes another go at it.”