Rick Perry draws big crowds in N.H., takes subtle swipe at Mitt Romney

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry, seen at the Black Hawk County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner in Waterloo, Iowa, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry attends the Black Hawk County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner in Waterloo, Iowa, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday drew nearly 700 residents of the Granite State to two house parties, demonstrating that the newest GOP presidential hopeful's drawl and socially conservative message isn't dampening his drawing power in this state of famously flinty Yankees.

Stumping for votes in a state that will hold the nation's first presidential primary early next year -- and is home to one of his top advisers, David Carney -- Perry drew a link between the culture of individualism that exists in the Lone Star State and New England.

"This is the live free or die state, y'all get it," he said, yoking a Southernism with New Hampshire's motto as he held forth before roughly 350 people at the Chichester home of former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey.

"The fact is you can't live free if the federal government takes over one-sixth of the economy and violates the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Obamacare has to be repealed," he said, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd.

The speech focused largely on Perry's record as a job creator and his determination to downsize the federal government. "I will go to the Oval Office every day and try to make Washington, D.C. as inconsequential in your lives as I can," Perry promised his listeners.

There is one area where Perry sees a greater role for the federal government: border control. Though both President Obama and his predecessor, Perry's fellow Texan George W. Bush, sent troops to help secure the southwest border, Perry argues there should be more boots on the ground.

Concerns about illegal immigration came up at both house parties. Despite his call for improved border security, Perry -- whose state shares a longer border with Mexico than any other -- opposes building a fence there. He argues it would be a waste of resources.

"If you build a 30 foot wall from Brownsville to El Paso, the 35 foot ladder business gets real good," he quipped. "You've got to have people on the ground."

Perry's deviation from conservative orthodoxy on the immigration issue is drawing some attention from the rival he is threatening to topple as frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

On Friday, speaking to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, Romney sought to create distance from Perry on several immigration-related fronts. He backed the high-tech border fence and said that initiatives like providing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants - a policy Perry signed into law in 2001 - only provided incentives for people to come to the U.S. illegally.

In New Hampshire -- a state that's a must-win for Romney, a near-favorite son who owns a home here -- Perry appeared a sidelong swipe back. The Texan told crowds in both Manchester and Chichester that the GOP nominee could not be one who had to "blur" any differences with President Obama.

"The differences between President Obama and myself are great," Perry said. "He's lost more than a million jobs in two and a half years. I helped create a million jobs by freeing up our private sector in the state of Texas to do what they know how to do."

In one of the more awkward moments of the day, an attendee at Perry's Manchester house party asked the governor if he has any illegal relatives living in Massachusetts, apparently referencing the recent drunk driving arrest of a Kenyan uncle of President Obama's who is living in the country illegally. Though the crowd roared with laughter, Perry seemed less amused.

Furrowing his brow, Perry told the questioner: "My brother in law is Hispanic."

"One of the strengths of our country is this great diversity of our history in this state and all across the country," Perry added. But he went on to say that "we must respect the rule of law in this country when we deal with issues like immigration," and by the end of his answer, a smile reappeared. "To answer your question, no, I don't have any - in Massachusetts or any other states that I know of."

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.