Perry a Tough Sell in New Hampshire

Rick Perry at a house party in New Hampshire on Sept. 3, 2011.
Rick Perry at a house party in New Hampshire on Sept. 3, 2011.

NASHUA, N.H. — Rick Perry barnstormed New Hampshire and the talk radio circuit Tuesday to showcase his endorsement from immigration hardliner Joe Arpaio, but there were few visible signs that the Arizona sheriff’s blessing will revive the governor’s campaign here.

Perry is polling in the low single digits in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary, on Jan. 10, and his renewed focus on immigration has been met with some skepticism. At one point, Arapaio was booed while praising Perry during a town hall gathering, and Perry found himself on the defensive again for once telling critics they were heartless for opposing his view that certain illegal immigrants should get in-state rates for college tuition.

The governor didn’t help matters by repeatedly mispronouncing Arpaio’s last name and then flubbing an exchange about the voting age and the date of the 2012 election. Aides said Perry simply misspoke when he mistakenly told college students they couldn’t vote for him on Nov. 12 unless they were 21.

The voting age is 18, and Election Day 2012 falls on Nov. 6.

They were all minor gaffes — easy mistakes to make in a day packed with otherwise unremarkable media interviews and town hall meetings — but Perry can ill-afford any more “oops” moments.

“It does seem like there’s a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward dynamic that seems to have taken hold,” said Jim Henson, a government professor at the University of Texas and the co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. A gaffe that would have seemed innocuous a couple of months ago, Henson said, now underscores “the overall portrait of them as struggling and not ready for prime time.”

Why Perry is even spending time campaigning in a state that seems so far out of reach bewilders Henson and other political analysts. Iowa voters turn out for their first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3, and if Perry doesn’t perform well there, he can probably throw in the towel.

“No one, even in his camp, expects him to do well in New Hampshire,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “He should be spending every available moment in Iowa.” Sabato described Arpaio’s endorsement as too little, too late and said it would have been more a lot more helpful right after making the "heartless" comment during a nationally televised debate in late September.

The issue has dogged Perry ever since he made the comment, and it predictably re-emerged Tuesday morning just after Arpaio publicly endorsed him. Retired nurse Alice Bury of Amherst, N.H., asked why her grandchildren would have to pay out-of-state tuition in Texas when illegal immigrants residing in Texas pay in-state rates. Perry said he would not impose the policy on other states, and he apologized for insulting critics of the policy.

"I said in a debate something that was very inappropriate and I said people were heartless, and that was an absolutely inappropriate thing to say," Perry told Bury. "I understand your concern about the issue of illegal immigration and that was absolutely an incorrect thing for me to say."

Bury said after the event that Perry's continued support for the policy left her “disappointed” and that she was now leaning toward former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Perry has two more events scheduled here on Wednesday — one with the Nashua Chamber of Commerce and then a speech before the New Hampshire House of Representatives in Concord. When he arrives in Concord, Perry will find less support than he had when he was a top-tier candidate.

A third House member, Rep. John Hikel of Goffstown, defected from Perry to Romney on Tuesday, according to a report in the New Hampshire Union Leader. The paper recently endorsed Gingrich in the GOP race, and its editorial page editor, Drew Cline, wrote in a blistering article Tuesday that Perry was "woefully unprepared" to become president.

"He did more than misspeak. He did more than recklessly attack his own base and generally act like the class bully assigned to spend study hall with the chess club," Cline wrote. "He did more than forget his talking points and display an uncomfortable lack of knowledge of important topics. He simply suffocated."

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