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 Perryâ€™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 front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
New Hampshire, though, poses a problem for Perry. The state traditionally holds the nationâ€™s first presidential primary, and Perry, who declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination earlier this month, has only begun to introduce himself here.
Heâ€™s got one of the stateâ€™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 â€œPolitics&Eggsâ€ breakfast, a must-stop for potential candidates to meet business leaders. And he has clearly piqued interest among the rank and file.
â€œHeâ€™s caused some ripples,â€ 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 â€œcome off as electable,â€ said Windham Town Chairman Travis Blais. Republicans sense they have a terrific shot at winning next year, as President Barack Obamaâ€™s national approval ratings remain well below 50 percent. The electability issue could trump other concerns.
â€œI like Perry, but I have to look more at him. We need to have someone who can beat Obama,â€ 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, â€œsuddenly the race becomes Romney versus the anti-Romney, and the anti-Romney will get a boost,â€ said Blais.
First, though, Perry will have to overcome the cultural gap Southerners face here.
â€œGeorge W. Bush (Perryâ€™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 itâ€™s Bush standing there,â€ MacDonald said.
Thereâ€™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 thereâ€™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.