Rick Perry's 2012 Challenge in New Hampshire

Political observers, not ready to rule out victory, say good showing might be enough.

By + More

Like so many politicians from Texas, Gov. Rick Perry is brash, blustery, and deeply conservative. That plays pretty well on most Republican campaign trails, especially states like Iowa and South Carolina, which both have early contests in the 2012 GOP presidential race. But how will he fair in the crucial state of New Hampshire, where the Republican voters come from a more traditional and moderate strain of conservatism? Though he faces an uphill climb in the Granite State against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry is making a play for the state--and even a modest showing may be enough for his overall chances.

[See cartoons about the GOP 2012 primary.]

Since his debut in the campaign field, Perry has skyrocketed past his GOP rivals to become the front-runner in national polls. A CNN poll from August 24-25 showed him trouncing Romney 27 percent to 14 percent among Republicans. But, of course, there's no national GOP primary. In order to win the nomination, Perry will have to navigate the primary schedule, which will almost certainly include New Hampshire as the first primary in the nation. Losing in New Hampshire isn't fatal to a campaign--after all, President Obama lost that contest to Hillary Clinton in 2008--but the race often narrows the field. And while Perry is doing well in the state, most polls show that he still has a ways to go to bypass Romney, a familiar face in New England politics. A poll from NH Journal found that Romney leads among New Hampshire Republicans with support from 36 percent, while Perry has 18 percent. Unlike Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who's focused on the Iowa Caucus, Perry has already made trips to New Hampshire and appears to be serious about competing in the race there.

[See a slideshow of 2012 GOP contenders.]

"Yes, he has a shot. I wouldn't describe him as the favorite," says Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. The advantage to Perry, or any candidate looking to unseat Romney, is that Romney is a very well-known commodity. He was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and already took a shot at the presidency in 2008. (He lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain.) So, while his strengths are well-known, so are his weaknesses. Scala noted that Romney's support in New Hampshire has stayed steady, with about 35 percent of the voters supporting him since he first dipped his toe into presidential politics back in 2007. "That leaves two thirds of the electorate out there," Scala says. "A good portion of that electorate has decided that, 'I'm not crazy about Romney. I'd probably vote for him over Obama, but I'm looking for someone else.'" Alternatives to Romney include Herman Cain and Bachmann, but Perry is in a good position to establish himself as the anti-Romney candidate, which may appeal to New Hampshirites.

[See photos of Republican contenders on the campaign trail.]

Although they've certainly turned more blue over the years, it's a mistake to view New Hampshire voters as always moderate. In 1996, Pat Buchanan shocked Sen. Robert Dole to win the primary there, and last year the state elected Republican Kelly Ayotte to be its senator. Rebellious is a better way to describe them--Granite Staters are well known for their disdain with establishment candidates and their unwillingness to go along with the front-runner, whoever it may be. That could play into Perry's hands, but could just as easily turn against him if he appears to be the favorite among the Republican establishment. New Hampshire voters may also be attracted to Perry's fiscal conservatism, and his full-throated opposition to Obama's healthcare law. "This state is moved on fiscal issues," says Rich Killion, a New Hampshire political consultant who was previously advising the campaign of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has dropped out of the race. "They care about social issues, but they are moved on fiscal issues."

A victory in New Hampshire may be out of reach for Perry. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a hopeless cause. If Perry can manage expectations, he might be able to translate a strong second-place showing into momentum going into other states, such as South Carolina, where he has a much bigger advantage. In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, beleaguered by scandals over infidelity, lost to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire, but his strong showing against the highly favored Massachusetts senator was seen as a partial victory, earning Clinton his "Comeback Kid" nickname. New Hampshire is important, but past races have shown that it isn't necessarily decisive.