GREENLAND, N.H. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry into the Republican presidential race is giving the race a jolt.
Perry is an unabashed evangelical Christian who recently held a prayer rally at a Texas stadium.
On Saturday, Perry stepped out onto the backyard pool patio of New Hampshire Deputy House Speaker Pam Tucker, waved at the crowd of about 150 curious Republicans who had come to Greenland to hear him, and said: “Hi y’all!”
Before long, he was answering questions. People asked him about everything from energy to Israel.
“Israel’s not ever going to have to worry, if I’m president of the United States,” he said. “We’re gonna be standin’ with our friends, and if you’re our enemy, we’re not just going to give you some lip service. If you try to hurt the United States, we will come defeat you.”
Perry doesn’t shy away from talking about his faith.
“There are certain values that you don’t compromise,” he said. “There are certain things in my life, I’ll tell you, for instance, my faith is somethin’ I’m not going to compromise.”
Warren Gruen, a state representative from Rochester, was among the many at the party who liked that Perry was talking about his religion.
“I love his religious views,” Gruen said. “I’m a born-again Christian, just like he is, and if born-again Christians are going to be prohibited from being open about their faith and prohibited from being involved in public office, then we’re a hurtin’, hurtin’ nation.”
Like Gruen, many of the guests identified with the Tea Party, and the Tea Party includes many evangelical Christians.
Republican activists in New Hampshire tend to be religious, according to University of New Hampshire Survey Center Director Andrew Smith. But Smith said that’s not the case with many voters — Republicans and independents — who are expected to turn out in next year’s Republican presidential primary.
“One of the things about New Hampshire that’s different from the other early primary states is that New Hampshire is one of the least religious states in the country,” Smith said, “so candidates who invoke social conservative ideas and religion, in particular, typically don’t do that well here, so Perry’s openly advocating his religion probably isn’t a very good tactic in New Hampshire.”
Still, at this weekend’s party, even those who didn’t see themselves as particularly religious didn’t think Perry’s open embrace of his faith would hurt him.
“To me, it’s neutral,” said John Tucker, one of the hosts. “To me, it’s not a big issue. I go to church, not as much as I should, but I think having a man of faith is great. I don’t think it’s a negative. I don’t think it’s a positive.”
Perry joins plenty of other conservatives in the race: former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann are all trying to be the conservative candidate that will challenge front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Smith believes that Perry is likely to take votes away from those other conservatives, and not from Romney.
“I think the biggest thing that Perry’s entry into the race will do is to further crowd the conservative wing of the field here,” Smith said. “The moderate wing is pretty much still Mitt Romney.”
And Smith points out that moderates will likely make up the bulk of the voters come primary day.
But the guests who heard Perry think he could spell trouble for Romney. They have trouble with Romney’s changes in positions on abortion over the years. They don’t understand how he can defend creating universal health insurance coverage in Massachusetts, but criticize President Obama’s national health insurance plan.
Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, a Tea Party group, found that, unlike Romney, Perry is a forceful speaker.
“One of the differences I noticed is you know exactly where he’s coming from,” DeLemus said. “When the question is asked, you get the answer, and [Perry] doesn’t take the long way around the barn — by the time you’re done, you’re not sure what it was [the person] said — and he’s very clear, very specific about what he believes, and I respect that.”
Romney has been running on economic issues as the able manager who can create jobs again.
The economic approach Perry offered this weekend was simple: “If it’s not comin’ in, we’re not gonna spend it,” he said.
That simplicity appealed to people like Barbara Gibney, a Greenland engineer.
“I am very impressed with the back-to-basics philosophy,” she said. “It’s refreshing to me. ”
It’s a whole new race now.