MERRIMACK, N.H. – After years in the political wilderness, some of Rick Perry’s trademark swagger returned on the Fourth of July weekend in southern New Hampshire.
Ever since his 2011 presidential campaign flameout, Perry's aim has been to project a studious, learned image. But on this Independence Day parade route, the candidate who showed up was an extrovert, a flirt and a fist bumper.
For all his flaws, Perry can, in the five-second span it takes to greet a potential voter on a parade route, charm almost anyone. And as John McCain showed during his long-shot 2007 New Hampshire campaign, there is a merriment to be had while campaigning amid low expectations.
So, for the first time in a long time, Perry seemed to be having fun on the presidential campaign trail.
The candidate had an almost theatrical, hyperactive zeal as he marched with two dozen or so supporters through the streets of Merrimack. He began the parade pantomiming drumming motions, in time with a local marching band several floats ahead.
“Happy birthday, y’all,” was his refrain along the parade route.
In Perry-speak, women he’s never met before were greeted with a “Hey, girl.” Men are “Hey, man,” and any plurality of voters was “Hey, gang!"
He greeted children with fist bumps and an exclamation of “Bam!” And Perry, who wrote a book seven years ago on the Boy Scouts, took particular interest in boys he spotted in the organization’s uniform.
And everyone, on the Fourth of July, was wished a “Happy birthday.”
This is the era of the billion-dollar campaign, but on this day, there were no pundits, polls, fundraisers. There was no indictment and no "oops."
This disparity between retail politics in a small early primary state like New Hampshire and the wholesale, big-money politics of super PACs has scrambled the old ways of understanding whether a candidate like Perry is making progress.
“Everybody has a shot, other than Donald Trump, right now,” said Larry Turke, a truck maintenance worker who met Perry on the parade route.
“Showing up for Merrimack,” he said when asked how Perry could win his vote.
Nearly half of the 20 men and women running for president descended upon the state for Independence Day festivities, in part because its small geographic size allows hitting multiple regions on what is one of the most consequential glad-handing days on the political calendar.
Perry was largely an afterthought, as more high-profile candidates were on the scene. But that dynamic seemed to work in his favor. He was just enough under the radar to avoid the kinds of heckles hurled at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who campaigned just two floats up from Perry.
Bush methodically worked both sides of the route trailed by a larger press contingent, indicating his status on the GOP candidate hierarchy. He could be heard at times bristling at adversarial parade watchers.
Two hours north, in Gorham, Clinton’s campaign team physically restrained reporters from the candidate with a rope.
In contrast, Perry seemed pleased to have reporters around, including a CNN producer.
But after all the fist bumps and kisses, he left behind a trail of undecided voters.
Of the dozens of New Hampshire voters along the parade route interviewed on Saturday, not one said he or she had decided to vote for Perry. Granted, they all remain uncommitted to any candidate.
The interviews affirmed a growing conclusion among New Hampshire political observers: The state's voters are taking longer than ever to make up their minds about the GOP field this cycle.
One voter, Doris Vachon, got the full Perry treatment at the Merrimack parade. Perry raced up to the 83-year-old registered independent, hugged her and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. Then he pulled back, looked her in the eye and said, “Happy birthday, America.”
Vachon was startled but star-struck.
“I was shocked by a politician!” she said after the encounter. ”I got a thrill out of it, at my age.”
Will she vote for him?
“Oh, I’m undecided right now,” she said. “Sixteen more months to go? That’s a long time for me to decide.”