Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – If Gov. Rick Perry decides to make another run for president, he will be more prepared this time around, he said Friday, kicking off a short swing through a crucial early primary state.
“That’s not to say I’m going to run. I haven’t [decided],” he told reporters following a gathering of local business leaders here. “But the reason I don’t choose to run won’t be because I’m ill-prepared.”
Texas’ longest-serving governor, who has called America “a place that believes in second chances,” is scheduled to mingle with New Hampshire Republicans at six events through Saturday, continuing to test public opinion in key political battlegrounds.
The trip comes just three days after Perry was booked on felony charges related to his threat to veto $7.5 million in state funds for the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney's office — an indictment Perry has labeled a politically motivated “farce.”
Perry mostly stuck to bread-and-butter topics as he addressed business leaders Friday, touting Texas’ economic success as something the higher-tax Granite State should emulate and calling for the federal government to clamp down on illegal immigration across the nation's southern border.
When asked about the indictment, he stuck to his previous lines of defense — and attack.
“I think that office has been politically motivated through the years,” he said about the public integrity unit.
Asked about Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, he said, “Thank God they stopped her before she killed somebody.”
Perry wanted Lehmberg to resign following her drunken driving arrest and conviction. She declined and he followed through on the veto, keeping $7.5 million from the state public corruption unit that is a part of the Lehmberg's office.
Perry told the business gathering that he was protecting the constitutionally guaranteed veto authority for the next governor, “whether it’s a Democrat or Republican.”
Addressing an Americans for Prosperity gathering in Manchester later in the evening, Perry brought up the indictment, joking, "You might have heard a little bit of news about me last week."
“This indictment isn’t about me,” he later said. “It’s a lot bigger than me. It’s about the state system of constitutional checks and balances.”
No one disputes that Perry had veto authority. The allegation is that he improperly combined the two — that he illegally tied his power to eliminate state funding for the integrity unit to his demand that Lehmberg resign, effectively setting up a quid pro quo arrangement that crossed the line into an abuse of power.
Perry’s legal saga has not seemed to bother New Hampshire Republicans. If anything, it has momentarily raised his political profile, making folks here forget about his sixth-place finish in the state's last GOP primary, when he netted less than 1 percent of the vote.
“I see that as courageous to say that I’m going to uphold the integrity of the office,” said Eddie Edwards, a Republican running for a New Hampshire Senate seat. “I wasn’t someone who followed him up close before, but this is the type of thing that shows character.”
Tom Thomson, son of former New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson, told the Americans for Prosperity crowd that Perry, like his father, “wasn’t afraid to veto a bill if he thought it was the right thing to do.”
In a press release welcoming Perry to New Hampshire, state Republican committee chairwoman Jennifer Horn called the indictment “ridiculous” and said it “appears that partisan political operatives are trying to smear the governor for demanding accountability from a politician who had lost the public's confidence.”
Democrats on Friday tried to push back against that narrative in a press call led by Texas state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and New Hampshire state Rep. Kathi Rogers, D-Concord.
Burnam, who was defeated in the March primary and will exit the Legislature after nine terms, said Perry should take the indictment more seriously and stop trying to link it to politics.
“It is clear you have a grand jury that is looking at the facts and decided to indict him, not over the veto,” Burnam said. “The indictment is over the blackmail, the threat. He should have been sophisticated enough to handle his political agenda without violating the law, but he wasn’t.”
Christine Ayala contributed to this report.