DERRY, N.H. – About a quarter of the seats at a hall in Derry went unfilled for Rick Perry’s fourth event here on Tuesday, a fitting end to a long day of campaigning that failed to drum up much enthusiasm.
The Texas governor spent it stumping with Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff from Maricopa County, Ariz., who bestowed his endorsement on Perry earlier on Tuesday at a diner in Amherst, N.H. The seal of approval from Arpaio, nationally known for his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, was meant to shore up Perry’s credibility on that hot-button issue. But the impact of the endorsement may have been minimized by the campaign’s decision to roll it out in New Hampshire – a state that borders Canada, not Mexico.
“He spent a lot of time on immigration policy, and I’m not sure how relevant that was for New Hampshire voters,” said Paul Bakhit, a voter from Nashua, N.H., who came to see Perry at a Saint Anselm College town hall on Tuesday afternoon. “I wish he would talk more about the economic engine,” Bakhit said.
On a day when he might have been positioning himself to take advantage of conservative rival Herman Cain’s woes, Perry instead appeared to be striking out in New Hampshire. At one point, he flubbed the date of the election and the legal voting age; at another, his advisers found themselves trying to tamp down rumors of another staff shakeup. And the New Hampshire Union Leader – which on Sunday endorsed Newt Gingrich – greeted Perry’s arrival in the state with a scathing dissection of his campaign failures by editorial page editor Drew Cline.
“He did more than misspeak. He did more than recklessly attack his own base and generally act like the class bully assigned to spend study hall with the chess club. He did more than forget his talking points and display an uncomfortable lack of knowledge of important topics. He simply suffocated,” Cline wrote.
At Perry’s first event of the day, Hillsborough County Commissioner Carol Holden said “there are more important things” to talk about – like the economy. Yet at each event, Perry led off by criticizing the federal government for failing to secure the border.
“I will be a law-and-order president just as I have been a law-and-order governor,” he said more than once. Perry also announced his own plan to deal with illegal immigrants as he attempted to draw contrasts to the Obama administration’s “catch and release” policy. “My policy will be to detain and deport every illegal alien that we apprehend,” Perry said.
At most stops, the line drew only awkward silence from the crowd, compared with polite and at times enthusiastic applause for Perry’s calls to end government bailouts and cut Congress’s pay and working hours in half, which were buried later in his stump speech.
“Had [the endorsement] been made in Iowa I think it would have gotten quite a bit of attention. I think doing it in New Hampshire kind of limits the impact,” said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican.
Others suggested that the Arpaio endorsement will have little impact regardless of where it was rolled out, because voters have made up their minds about Perry’s immigration record, which became an early flashpoint when he tried to defend his decision to offer in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants and suggested that critics of the decision were heartless.
“I really don’t think it’ll move much of anything in Iowa,” said conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace. Deace said he held a focus group last week and found it would be “very difficult for Rick Perry to recover from telling a group of Republican primary voters that they just don’t have a heart…. I don’t think there’s much of a chance that Rick Perry rallying those whose big issue is immigration.”
The fact that Perry is still spending any time in New Hampshire – a state where he is polling in the low single digits - is an indication that his campaign, just over a month from the first primary contest, is still struggling to find its footing. After tossing around a stump speech about smaller government, policies promoting expanded energy exploration, and his 20 percent flat-tax proposal, Perry seemed to finally get comfortable – and energetic – with his plans to reform government. After he unveiled the plan in Bettendorf, Iowa, two weeks ago, Perry’s outsider message drew enthusiastic applause and cheers when he delivered it to voters in New Hampshire a few days later. Combined with two solid debate performances on foreign policy, things seemed to be on the upswing for Perry’s flagging campaign.
But the campaign seems to be struggling again. After Tuesday’s low-energy endorsement, a report surfaced of a staff shakeup in Perryland. Late in the day, Perry himself – cornered by reporters after an event – joined senior staffers in denying the reports.
“News to me,” he said in response to questions about the reports when the press cornered him after his last event. “I would suggest to you that’s just scuttlebutt,” he said.
Perhaps Perry will be able to regain his footing on Wednesday, when he addresses the New Hampshire legislature. He suggested during stops today he will urge the lawmakers to pass right-to-work legislation, an issue that may be have more resonance in the Granite State than immigration.