WASHINGTON — Governor Rick Perry, fresh off an indictment and then a brief stop Tuesday at a Texas courthouse to be fingerprinted and released, is shining up his boots to stage a New Hampshire comeback tour this week.
Yet in an odd political twist, Perry’s clash with the law may prove to be a valuable selling point in his bid to run for the GOP presidential nomination.
New Hampshire political scientists say they cannot recall another would-be presidential candidate showing up while under indictment. But many New Hampshire Republicans are rushing to Perry’s defense, talking about what they consider a politically motivated indictment last week, instead of focusing on Perry’s disastrous 2012 run for president.
“It would be in his favor for a lot of Republicans, I think,” said Bill O’Connor, a commercial airline pilot who is chair of the Strafford County Republican Party, which includes Dover and Durham.
“The indictment is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Spec Bowers, chair of the Sullivan County GOP in west central New Hampshire, who is also an innkeeper and candidate for state representative.
Perry, who has led Texas since December 2000, was indicted by a grand jury Friday on two felony counts of coercing a public servant and abusing his official capacity.
The case stems from Perry’s decision last year to carry out a threat to veto $7.5 million over two years from a statewide public corruption unit run by the office of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. She had refused his demand to resign after her arrest on drunken driving charges that was documented in an embarrassing video.
Perry has stood by the veto.
“We’ll prevail because we’re standing for the rule of law,” he said Tuesday in a speech carried on live television outside a courthouse in Austin, just before he was officially booked.
He is scheduled to speak at a Heritage Foundation event on immigration in Washington Thursday before holding six events in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday, his first appearance in the state since he dropped out of the last GOP presidential primary in 2011. Next week, he will appear in Iowa.
The New Hampshire Republican Party was quick to welcome Perry with a press release this week, citing comments made by prominent Democrats disparaging the charges against Perry.
John H. Sununu, the former governor and one of the state’s most prominent Republicans, said he plans to introduce Perry at a party rally on Saturday in Stratham.
“This hurts the Democratic Party,” said Sununu, who hasn’t endorsed. “It shows how desperate they are to avoid talking about issues.”
New Hampshire Democrats gave no indication they will back down, reissuing a statement from the Democratic National Committee mocking Perry’s “bluster.”
“This isn’t a partisan witch hunt,” said Mo Elleithee, the DNC’s communications director. “It’s our legal process. An independent and nonpartisan special prosecutor was tapped by a Republican-appointed judge to look into allegations Perry abused his power, and he presented his case to a nonpartisan grand jury.”
All the attention on the indictment may distract New Hampshire’s Republicans, at least for now, from Perry’s last run, when he entered with lots of money and lofty expectations before finishing sixth, with a mere 1,764 votes. His October 2011 speech at a conservative conference in Manchester, where he appeared loose to the point of wooziness, became a YouTube hit, drawing questions about his sobriety.
Less than two weeks later, at a Michigan debate, Perry forgot the name of the third federal agency he was dead set on shutting down, stammering amid follow-up questions and effectively ending his chances for winning the primary.
“I can’t. The third one, I can’t,” he said. “Sorry. Oops.”
It was later reported that he may have been taking pain medications for his back during the campaign.
“He embarrassed his supporters last time, and that’s beyond just letting them down,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. “Sometimes your first impression leaves such a bad taste in people’s mouth that you don’t get a second chance.”
Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist, said Perry, who drew 5 percent among potential GOP contenders in an NBC News/Marist poll of New Hampshire voters last month, may not be a good fit in the state, where social conservatives have not fared as well as economic conservatives.
But Perry’s supporters, and many uncommitted New Hampshire Republicans, believe he can rehabilitate his image. They point to Texas’s robust job growth, to the governor’s leadership and tough talk on immigration, and to New Hampshire’s history of granting second chances.
Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire political veteran who advised Senator John McCain’s two presidential runs, was hired by Perry’s political committee, Americans for Economic Freedom, in April. Dennehy acknowledged Perry’s poor performance in the run-up to the 2012 primary and the bad taste he left in some Republican activists’ mouths.
“If he ends up running for president, he’s starting from scratch,” Dennehy said. “It’s a slog and it’s a lot of work and I know that’s what he’s trying to assess right now.”
Dennehy described a methodical approach this time around in New Hampshire, saying Perry plans to return in October to campaign for Republicans running on the November ballot if his reception this weekend is positive.
“Republicans in New Hampshire kind of hit a reset after each presidential primary,” said Bryan K. Gould, chairman of the Merrimack County GOP, which includes Concord, and general counsel to the state party. “The candidates can come back, and if they can prove themselves and make the case, the voters really give the candidate a clean state.”