Rick Perry finds New Hampshire friendlier territory in his first appearance since 2012


Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential race, answers questions from reporters following an appearance at a business leaders luncheon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire August 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Less than 72 hours after a defiant Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was booked by authorities in Austin on felony charges -- then promptly went out for dessert -- he was greeted warmly by a small crowd of business leaders here who mostly shrugged off his legal woes.

"I'll have an ice cream cone with you at any time," John Lyons, a local attorney who visited Perry in Texas this spring, told the governor.

The audience erupted in laughter.

This is Rick Perry's unexpected political geography these days: Back home, he's at the center of a serious legal battle. Outside of Texas, conservative activists and lawmakers are rallying to his side, claiming he is a victim of a politically motivated attack.

"Hi, y'all," a cheerful Perry told the crowd of about four dozen business leaders and a full roster of local and national media who assembled in this seaside town to catch a glimpse of his first visit to New Hampshire since January of 2012.

The governor was in a chatty, retail-politicking mood. He expressed his pleasure at the temperate weather, "45 degrees cooler" than in Austin. He asked people what they do for a living, studiously responding, "yes, sir" when they answered. He engaged in some good-natured ribbing. ("You raised a pretty good looking boy. He's got his mama's looks," he joked with one man.)

But he didn't steer clear of less-pleasant topics, like the criminal charges he faces.

"Some of you may have heard there are a few officials in Travis County, Texas, that would like to restrict my constitutional authority to veto a piece of legislation," he told the Portsmouth Business Leaders Luncheon.

Perry pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to felony charges that he abused his powers and tried to coerce a public official to resign. He threatened to veto funding for an anti-corruption agency that is part of the Travis County district attorney's office if Travis Count District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (D) didn't resign following her 2013 drunk driving arrest.

She refused. He made good on his threat. A watchdog group filed an ethics complaint and a grand jury indicted Perry last week.

But he has received an outpouring of support from prominent conservatives like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And he had plenty of sympathizers here.

"He was very much within his legal rights to defund the program," said Connie Phelps, 71, of Stratham.

Dennis Riendeau, 58, of Portsmouth, was skeptical of the charges.

"I just question the timing of it," he said.

Perry's political action committee has been selling t-shirts that claim the governor is “Wanted" for "securing the border and defeating Democrats," and that Lehmberg is "Guilty" of  "driving while intoxicated and perversion of justice."

Perry, sharply dressed in a sky blue shirt and pastel pink tie under a dark suit, gestured emphatically with his hands as he endorsed the idea that he is a political target. He described Travis County -- which includes the liberal hotbed of Austin -- as "the blueberry in the tomato soup" of ruby red Texas.

With his appearance here, Perry kicked off a two-day swing though a state he hasn't been to since his humiliating showing in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. He's attending six public events in two days. Perry will headline a Saturday rally for the New Hampshire Republican Party and mingle with conservative activists at a pork roast and a picnic.

In a speech Friday evening in Manchester at an dinner hosted by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, Perry started by paying tribute to James Foley, the American photojournalist from New Hampshire who was executed by extremist Islamist forces. He also vouched for limited government.

"We should make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in our lives as we can," he said.

Perry dropped out of the 2012 presidential contest after getting less than 1 percent of the GOP primary vote in New Hampshire. As he weighs another bid, he's trying to engage more with the state than he did last time.

"I didn't stay here long enough. I didn't spend the time, I didn't put in the preparatory time," he acknowledged.

Picking up where he let off during a speech at a conservative think tank in Washington on Wednesday Thursday, Perry called for a robust effort to root out radical Islamic State militants in Iraq. And he doubled down on his claim that militant extremists may have entered the United States on its southern border, which he labeled as "porous" during a lengthy talk on immigration.

"I do not believe America can retreat back into the bounds of the continental United States and draw a red line around it and feel that is an appropriate response," said Perry. "We must be engaged."

Perry renewed his calls for tighter control of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The border is not secure," he said. "We know that. You know that."

But he spent much of his remarks focused tightly on the economy, and the Texas business climate.

Perry, who has run ads in other states in an attempt to coax businesses to move to Texas, said governors in neighboring states have kept him on his toes.

"[Louisiana Gov.] Bobby Jindal makes me nervous every day," Perry declared.

He mentioned driving by a manufacturing facility for firearms maker Sig Sauer on the way to the lunch: "I'm telling you the thought crossed my mind..."

"No, no," responded one woman, half-jokingly. She warned this would be Perry's last business lunch here if he tried to recruit them away.

Weighing in on the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and the resulting clashes between police and protesters there, Perry said authorities need to find a way to balance safety with freedom.

"I want the people in Ferguson to have faith in their local government who is there to protect them, not to intimidate them," he said.

Perry didn't seem too worried about his faceoff with officials back home.

"It is what it is," he said. "I've got a great legal team put together to defend me. And hopefully it will be behind us quickly."

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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