LEBANON, N.H. — Can a tough-talking, God-fearing Texas Aggie win friends — and votes — among hardcore New Hampshire Yankees?
The future of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's bid for the Republican presidential nomination could depend on the answer, and so far, that answer is far from clear.
Perry is the new national GOP front-runner after jumping to a 12 percentage point lead in the Aug. 17-21 Gallup survey over July frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
New Hampshire, though, poses a problem for Perry. The state traditionally holds the nation's first presidential primary, and Perry, who declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination earlier this month, has only begun to introduce himself here.
He's got one of the state's top Republican strategists, former George H.W. Bush White House political director David Carney, advising him. He visited the state last week, speaking at a "Politics & Eggs" breakfast, a must-stop for potential candidates to meet business leaders. And he's clearly piqued interest among the rank and file.
"He's caused some ripples," said state party vice chairman Wayne MacDonald.
A Romney loss here would be devastating. He has a house in Wolfeboro, has been a strong front-runner in statewide polls since 2009 and has worked this state hard, including town hall meetings Wednesday and Thursday.
A Perry win, or even a better than expected showing, would be dramatic evidence that his appeal is more than regional.
Perry, say the folks up here, has two paths to ingratiating himself among them.
One is to "come off as electable," said Windham Town Chairman Travis Blais. Republicans sense they have a terrific shot at winning next year, as President Barack Obama's national approval ratings remain well below 50 percent. The electability issue could trump other concerns.
"I like Perry, but I have to look more at him. We need to have someone who can beat Obama," said Ginger Mattson, a Keene accountant.
Should Perry show strength elsewhere, notably in Iowa, whose caucus is expected to precede the New Hampshire voting by about a week, "suddenly the race becomes Romney versus the anti-Romney, and the anti-Romney will get a boost," said Blais.
First, though, Perry will have to overcome the cultural gap Southerners face here.
"George W. Bush (Perry's predecessor as Texas governor) wound up not being very popular here, and a lot of folks say you can close your eyes and listen to Perry and think it's Bush standing there," MacDonald said.
There's precedent for a Southern governor overcoming the wariness. The barely known Jimmy Carter, then a former one-term Georgia governor, topped other Democrats in the 1976 primary here with his message of restoring trust to government. Carter used his win to boast he could triumph outside the South, and he ultimately got the nomination.
But there's a big difference today. Carter campaigned at a time when few reporters followed his every move this early in the campaign, as the media do today.
Perry already has stirred some well-known controversy. Campaigning in Iowa recently, he said that if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke prints more money before the 2012 election, that would be "almost treacherous — or treasonous in my opinion." He's called Social Security a "failure" and "something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years."
But this is a state where the personal touch matters, and at the Politics & Eggs breakfast, Perry got a decent reception.
"He comes from a background where he worked on a farm. He's not a Harvard graduate, and this state has a lot of blue-collar people," said Portsmouth small business owner Jon Howard.
But to the vast number of voters who weren't at the breakfast, Perry still has a way to go to bridge the gap.
"He's not going to connect with us in the Northeast. He's too different," said Don Mahler, a Lebanon physician. "He looks like he belongs in Texas. He doesn't look like he belongs here."
"We've had enough Texans," added Rita Tingle, a retired Hanover teacher, "and we remember his (Perry's) faux pas."
Perry's challenge is easy to analyze, said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. Romney's maintained the support of roughly 35 percent to 40 percent of the state's Republicans. Perry needs to somehow match that, which could be tough with other social conservatives in the race.
"The math doesn't work well for Perry," said Scala.
But New Hampshire has a history of embracing surprising candidates and giving instant boosts to their candidacy, especially if they sense they can be general-election winners. And with the more conservative-friendly South Carolina likely to be the first major post-New Hampshire 2012 test, Perry may not even need to win.
"If he placed a respectable second in New Hampshire," Scala said, "it wouldn't hurt him."
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