PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Republicans along New Hampshire’s seacoast once gave Rick Perry a rock star’s welcome, rallying behind the longtime Texas governor as a political savior destined to reclaim the White House for the GOP.
Today, there is perhaps no better place that illustrates Perry’s challenges as he works to resurrect his presidential ambitions.
“I wish him the best of luck if he tries to make a comeback,” said state Rep. Pam Tucker, who hosted Perry’s inaugural New Hampshire rally in her backyard and supported Perry “to the bitter end” in 2012, but wasn’t invited to join a small delegation of New Hampshire officials who met with Perry in Texas last month.
Asked about the governor’s new image, which includes dark-rimmed glasses, Tucker said: “I don’t think a physical makeover is going to make any difference.”
Those close to Perry say he is aggressively eyeing a second presidential bid, even if he has to rebuild a political operation from scratch in the state that hosts the nation’s first presidential primary. As he begins to re-engage with New Hampshire voters later this month in his first trip to the state since the 2012 election, the Texas Republican faces deep skepticism and lingering embarrassment from some who were once among his biggest believers.
Perry will forever be remembered for his performance during one of the many GOP presidential debates in 2011, when he tried repeatedly – but failed – to name the third government agency he would eliminate as part of his budget plan. All he could come up with: “Oops.”
“Mistakes were made. You can’t hide from that,” said Perry adviser Mark Miner, previewing what could become a familiar talking point for a second Perry campaign. “But it’s a bigger issue that Washington and the politicians of Washington have forgotten how to govern than Gov. Perry forgetting a government agency two years ago.”
With chiseled good looks, Perry, at 64, is the nation’s longest serving governor, having led a state since 2000 that can claim credit for much of the country’s recent job growth. He also has a unique ability to connect with voters one-on-one – a significant asset in the diners and living rooms of early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Perry has also emerged as a leading Republican voice in the immigration debate in recent weeks, having sent 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border to help handle an influx of young immigrants.
Major questions remain, however, about his ability to raise money among the party’s biggest donors, who are as skeptical in some cases as the New Hampshire voters he disappointed in 2012.
“He’s a very gifted politician,” said Ron Kaufman, a veteran of GOP presidential politics. “The trouble is, it’s always harder to rebuild than build. He’s certainly got some rebuilding to do.”
Perry briefly addressed his political strengths in a conference call with New Hampshire reporters last week when asked about the embarrassment that lingers among some former supporters.
“I’m pretty proud of what we’ve been able to do in Texas – whether it’s the creation of jobs, more so than any other state in the nation, or whether it’s filling a void when the federal government fails to do their constitutional responsibilities,” Perry said. “2016 will take care of itself when 2016 comes along.”
Perry is taking definite steps in that direction. For more than a year, he has been holding weekly meetings with experts on foreign and domestic policy – either in person or on the phone – to create what his advisers call “a fluency” in complicated topics.
He has also increased foreign and domestic travel with stops this year at World Economic Forum in Davos, the Jimmy Kimmel show and New York, Iowa and South Carolina in recent months. He visits New Hampshire on Aug. 22 and 23. And this fall, he makes another international swing that includes stops in China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland and Croatia.
With the help of veteran Republican operative Henry Barbour, Perry has also begun hiring staff in key states to help prepare for a possible run. His travel and staffing is being paid by a nonprofit group, led by his chief political adviser, called Americans for Economic Freedom, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money without disclosing its donors.
This week, Perry also created a political action committee that is designed, at least initially, to help elect other Republicans in the November midterms.
“They’ve done a spectacular job in relaunching,” said Dave Carney, who served as a senior adviser to Perry for much of his first run. “Rick Perry is an impressive person. He’s going to have to prove that again.”
Still, the skeptics are easy to find in New Hampshire, where Perry’s top state adviser from the 2012 campaign is among those who have moved on. A newly hired adviser, veteran operative Mike Dennehy, is working to connect Perry with a new group of business leaders and Republican activists – largely ignoring his previous team.
“This is an entirely new election, and it warrants an entirely new campaign – assuming he gets in,” Dennehy said.