GREENLAND, N.H. — Rick Perry, who entered the 2012 GOP race Saturday, greeted his first crowd of voters here with two words rarely heard in these parts: with a wave, he let out a boisterous “Hi, y’all” to a crowd clad in khakis and button ups gathered around a backyard pool.
There was also this: “Y’all holler outta question” to open up a question and answer session.
And this when it got going: “There’s hands going up everywhere, somebody just get after it.”
There were times when the three-term Texas governor sounded eerily like the “Saturday Night Live” version of George W. Bush, droppin’ every “g” and proclaiming “awesome” at nothing in particular.
His appearance raised the question that is at the center of his candidacy: Can Perry take his Texas twang on the road and meet voters where they live, in cities and suburbs and swing states?
Among the early states, nowhere will Perry’s Texas way — the swagger, the downhome lingo, the social conservatism — be tested more rigorously than in New Hampshire, but with a visit during the second leg of his announcement tour, he signaled that he won’t cede this state to Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, who also campaigned here while the rest of the field focused on Iowa.
“This isn’t a strategy just to go work in a few places, we’re gonna be all across this country,” he said at a house party organized by Pamela Tucker, deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. “I feel right at home amongst people whose motto is ‘Live Free or Die,’” he said.
But tacitly acknowledging that what plays in South Carolina (and likely Iowa), won’t play here, Perry, 61, skipped the opening prayer from his announcement remarks, jumping right into his withering critique of President Obama’s tenure in front of a crowd of about 200 people.
“For three years now President Obama has been in office, he has been downgrading American jobs,” he said. “He has been downgrading our standing in the world, he has been been downgrading our financial stability, downgrading the hope of a better future for our children.”
Perry’s entry into the race significantly alters the field. He poses a challenge to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who up until now has seen little in the way of a challenge to his fundraising power and lead in most polls.
His rivals have barely challenged his record in debates and stump speeches so far, and when they have, he has brushed them off.
Yet, in his most recent appearance at a New Hampshire house party, it was clear Romney was ready to challenge Perry’s record on job creation, anticipating that Perry’s job record will be central to his rationale for running.
He recalled that as governor of Massachusetts he had to contend with a job-creating strategy that Perry also employed, as Texas saw an influx of new jobs at a rate not seen in any other state.
“When I got elected as governor, I had Arnold Schwarzenegger come to my state and try to poach jobs from my state. I thought how in the world can he do this to a fellow Republican. He put billboards up, with him in the billboard and he’s in a T-shirt and it says ‘Come to California,’ ” he said. “I put billboards up in his state that had me in a T-shirt, flexing my muscles and it said ‘smaller muscles, but much lower taxes, come to Massachusetts.’ ”
Part of Perry’s economic strategy has been to implore business owners in other states to move jobs to Texas, where he is the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.
Romney said that Perry’s candidacy will make it “a more colorful race.”
In New Hampshire, Romney has built up a strong base of support, and Huntsman has a team of staffers that is bigger than any of his challengers, though he is still battling for low name recognition.
Perry, whose top adviser is a longtime New Hampshire consultant, added another stop to his tour late Saturday, acknowledging how important the state is to the GOP nomination process.
On whether he is Romney’s worst nightmare, as one Boston newspaper suggested, Perry said that he expected to run a tough race. He said that there will be “a lot of time to discuss Gov. Romney’s record,” adding that his Texas record has stood the test of time.
“I hope I’m not anybody’s worse nightmare,” Perry said. “I hope I’m a very worthy competitor. We’re gonna run on our records. My goal is to finish number one in every contest. I may not do that but I’m a competitor and I didn’t get in this but for one reason and that’s because it’s my duty to serve my country and our country is in trouble.”
Asked if he was “too Texas” for a general election, Perry said:
“Aww. . .I don’t think so. You know, we’re not all carbon copies in Texas,” he said. “We’re a little bit different.”