MANCHESTER, NH – Rick Perry’s Granite State headquarters has the feel of a typical campaign office: Red, white, and blue “Perry – President” placards line the walls, young staffers tap away incessantly on keyboards and Blackberries, and dry erase boards are crowded with maps of the state, important dates, and key endorsements. The Texas Governor may have just sustained a series of extraordinary blows in national polling, but you wouldn’t know it from the demeanor of his staffers. The fight goes on, even in rival Mitt Romney’s regional backyard.
Unsurprisingly, several staffers I spoke with are upbeat about Perry’s latest debate performance at Dartmouth College. The word “solid” comes up more than once. “It’s what we needed,” one aide says, expressing relief that Perry “wasn’t a pinanta this time,” unlike in previous debates. They’re also quick to point out that debates are only one small element of a candidate’s overall appeal. Their man, they say, is much more dynamic in person and on the stump, which is why the campaign plans to get Perry in front of as many voters as possible before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. “We’ve adopted a marathon strategy,” one staffer explains. They certainly have the resources to take the long view; Perry raked in over $17 million in under 50 days last quarter.
Paul Young, the former New Hampshire GOP chair who now works for Perry’s campaign, says his team is fighting to overcome some distinct advantages enjoyed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- who leads comfortably in most statewide polls. “[Mitt] has been here campaigning for years, really. Compared to him, everyone else is getting in late. Especially us.” Young echoes the sentiment that debates are not the end-all-be-all of a candidate’s ability or electability. “Rick clearly connects in person. In that sense, he’s Clintonesque or Reaganesque in his ability to work a room and make real, personal connections with people. We want to play to that strength,” Young says, adding that Perry is “getting better” at debating.
Aside from an emphasis on retail politics, Team Perry continues to tout the Governor’s record in Texas as a major selling point. “Every time [Gov. Perry] comes to New Hampshire and talks about what he’s accomplished in Texas, we sign up literally hundreds of people to be part of this campaign,” another aide explains. Asked if Perry’s thoroughly Texan flair might limit his appeal with infamously reserved New Englanders, Perry aides insist they aren’t concerned. The real “uphill battle,” they say, involves the calendar and basic logistical blocking and tackling. Revisiting a recurring theme, they outline the challenge of competing with Romney’s campaign infrastructure that has been operating in one way or another for at least four years.
“It’s August 13th 2011 (Perry’s launch date) vs. 2007,” Young says. Indeed. Every day counts, which helps explain why the Perry camp seems aggrieved by rumors that New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary could vault ahead to as early as December 6th. “That wouldn’t be ideal,” Young deadpans, in a piece of classic New England understatement.
Nevertheless, Perry’s campaign professes optimism in the face of multiple state polls showing Romney holding dominant leads. Staffers direct me to a recent WMUR poll, which put Romney ahead of his closest rival (Herman Cain) by 25 points. “The numbers look great for Mitt, but if you look a little closer, you’ll notice that 89 percent of respondents say they’re not ‘dead set’ on their pick,” an aide notes. “[Romney] has been here for five years. Why is his support so soft?”
Prior to the Dartmouth debate, the Romney campaign got a boost by unveiling a marquee endorsement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Perry’s New Hampshire team seems neither surprised, nor impressed, by the alliance. “Endorsements only go so far,” Young says. “Policy positions and results matter more.” Another staffer shrugs, “Romney and Christie are both Northeastern moderates. Christie could end up being a liability [for Romney], actually. He’s soft on guns, soft on life…the only thing he’s strong on is his own voice.”
Perry aides say they’re not interested in sweating day-to-day horserace developments, and vow not to fall victim to media pressure. Some pundits wondered if Perry would reveal his own big-name endorsement to counter Romney’s Christie nod. Others have asked why Perry hasn’t released a specific jobs plan yet. “We’re rolling out the features of our campaign on our own terms,” I’m told. “We don’t need the media telling us how to run our campaign – no offense to your profession.” In other words, more endorsements are in the pipeline, and the jobs plan will be introduced on the campaign’s preferred timetable. “We’re going to have our economic plan out faster than it took Romney or Cain from the time they announced,” Young confirms. He says phase one of Perry’s jobs plan will be released next week, and the full package will be made public by the end of the year.
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