Rick Perry knows how to make small talk. The former Texas governor’s gift of gab was on display at a country store and gas station in southern New Hampshire Friday, where Perry spent an hour shaking hands, trading stories, and talking policy. The shop’s proprietor told Perry his brother had been an Army Ranger during the Vietnam War. “He’s probably been in the back of a C-130,” said Perry, who flew the transport plane for the Air Force in the 1970’s.
The former Ranger found his way through the crowd, and Perry struck up a conversation about their service. “There was some overlap,” Perry offered. A few more veterans piped up to share their service stories, as well. Perry was in his element.
But it’s not just veterans who get the Perry treatment. Another voter wearing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology jacket mentions that he used to live in Texas, working for Exxon. “An engineer?” Perry says, gesturing toward the jacket. A few moments before, Perry had introduced himself an Associated Press reporter, asking where she was originally from. “Toronto,” she replied. Without missing a beat, Perry mentioned that his favorite guitarist, the late Jeff Healey, was from Toronto.
For some, Perry’s Texasisms take getting used to. He sought the hands of a pair of teens standing in a corner. After meeting the first, he wheeled around to the second. “Is this guy any kin to you, over here?” Perry asked in his distinctive drawl, pointing to the first teen. The second teen looked bewildered. “What?” he replied. Perry repeated himself, and the kid looked like he understood. “No,” he said.
Perry is sweeping through New Hampshire as he gauges a second run for president, and it’s clear from his interactions with voters why he’s got a shot. He’s a natural at retail politics, connecting with individual voters to make them feel he’s listening. When he answers a question, Perry turns his body to face the questioner squarely, moving his hands and arms forcefully to punctuate his points. In Windham, Perry mentioned that a strong energy sector is “inextricably linked” to improving the economy. As he spoke, his eyes scanned the small crowd and found the former Exxon engineer in the MIT jacket. Perry reached out a hand, pointing it toward the man, as if to say, “You know what I’m talking about.”
It’s a more comfortable Perry than the one on the presidential debate stage during the 2012 election, a man who spoke haltingly, flubbing lines and forgetting points mid-sentence. Perry’s on a mission to show he knows his stuff this time. He talked extensively about how ISIS gained territory in Syria and Iraq. He ticked off the characteristics of the Texas economic model that he’d want to export to the country as president: conservative tax policy, regulatory policy, legal policy, and a skilled workforce. On immigration, he emphasized the need for more “aviation assets” along the border to stem the tide of illegal crossings.
Perry’s rapid-fire delivery, jumping from issue to issue, became a little long-winded at times. In the midst of one of his many pregnant pauses, a voter tried to insert a question: What should the U.S. do about ISIS? But before the man’s question was fully formed, Perry was rolling again with his discourse on the wider problems in the Middle East.
Perry’s been no stranger to New Hampshire since his 2012 bid. As his term as governor was winding down last year, the Texan was spending some time in the Granite State to stump for GOP candidates, including U.S. House hopeful Marilinda Garcia. The young Republican struggled to get financial support from national party committees in her unsuccessful run in 2014, but Perry stumped for Garcia and helped her raise money. Garcia, who lives next door in Salem, showed up Friday in Windham in a show of support for Perry.
He may have had an abysmal showing here in 2012—he dropped out not long after the primary—but Perry doesn’t appear to ready to cede New Hampshire. At least, not yet.