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How Rick Perry lost his groove

Last modified: 10/16/2011 12:00:00 AM
Just days after Gov. Rick Perry announced his presidential ambitions, the candidate made his way to Popover's bakery in Portsmouth where a sea of reporters, supporters and hecklers turned the street into a spectacle. George Carlisle, watching from a corner table on the patio, said he didn't know much about the Texas governor but came with an open and inquisitive mind.

Two months later, Carlisle's not so open anymore.

"I've given up on Rick Perry," he said last week. "I don't want to hear any specifics now. I've seen enough. I've heard enough. I don't care what he comes up with at this stage."

It's clear Perry's honeymoon with Granite State Republican voters is over. After an early surge of support that vaulted him to the top of the polls, two months of mediocre debate performances and past controversies revived by his opponents have taken their toll. In the most recent University of New Hampshire poll, Perry had sunk to 4 percent.

Voters have gotten acquainted with the candidate, and it appears many don't like what they've learned.

"It's a matter of being largely unknown, and then you find out that you like them better when you didn't know much about them," said Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, who added that the trajectory is a common one for new candidates.

The number of voters who have an unfavorable view of him is up nearly 30 percent since July. Only Michele Bachmann's favorability ratings have fallen more in that time.

Kevin Smith, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action, said he was surprised and confused by Perry's performances in nationally televised debates. He attended some of the candidate's early Granite State events, watching Perry captivate a room of 300 people, and expected him to be more aggressive on the national stage.

"You almost had the feeling of inevitability that this was going to be the guy to win the nomination and perhaps win the New Hampshire primary," said Smith, whose group has not endorsed a candidate. "And now that could still happen, but certainly over the last three or four weeks it's all changed."

Most voters at this point in the race are basing their opinions on national debates and news coverage, and less on specific policy issues, according to Andrew Smith, the pollster.

Carlisle, the onlooker in Portsmouth, said Perry's inability to command the debates shaped his opinion more than any policy decision could.

"Watching him in the debates was painful," he said. "It's like he didn't anticipate a single question. . . . He's not ready for prime time."

Carlisle has decided to support Mitt Romney.

 Immigration stance

Others who are more forgiving of Perry's lack of finesse on stage say they see one major reason conservative voters are leery of the candidate.

"There's a problem with his stance on illegal immigration," said Jerry Delemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, a Tea Party group. "There's an issue there." Perry has drawn heat for supporting in-state college tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants in Texas. Delemus said his group is still open to endorsing any candidate, but it would have a hard time backing Perry if he didn't change his tune on the issue.

"I really think that he's going to need to get in front of the people and have a conversation with them if he's looking to regain any support or the support that he's lost here in New Hampshire," Delemus said.

For Skip Murphy, co-founder of the conservative website GraniteGrok.com, Perry's immigration stance was a deal-killer. After much debate, his site decided to endorse Herman Cain earlier this month.

Murphy said he was initially impressed by the governor after seeing him speak at state Rep. Pam Tucker's home the day Perry announced his campaign in New Hampshire.

"I thought, 'He sounds very good.' And I certainly thought the line, 'I promise to work every single day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your everyday life as I can,' I thought that was a really great line," Murphy said.

But then the immigration issue arose, and Murphy said he wasn't satisfied with Perry's answers. State Rep. Jordan Ulery of Hudson had the same problem.

"I listened to what he had to say. I wanted to hear what he had to say. I wanted to hear how he justified some of his decisions he had made," Ulery said. "And his justification made him less credible in my mind."

But while Perry has turned off some Granite State voters, 68 percent of the likely Republican voters surveyed in this month's UNH poll haven't decided on a candidate yet.

"He can certainly recover from this," Smith said. "It's going to be harder in New Hampshire than other states. But he's not done yet. He's got money, not that money guarantees you a win, but it gives you the resources to compete."

Perry's campaign said last week it received $17 million in donations in the third quarter, millions more than Romney.

"We obviously have the fundraising capacity to continue to run a credible campaign," said Paul Young, a New Hampshire spokesman for Perry.

That money will buy, among other things, airtime. And with television ads expected to roll out soon, Perry will have the opportunity to use a platform that's been successful for him in the past, and that could shake up the field yet again.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or tndolny@cmonitor.com.)


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