PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Rick Perry came to press the flesh with voters here Thursday — but outside a local cafe, Popovers on the Square, he ran instead into a vociferous protest of his view that Medicare and Social Security are a "Ponzi scheme."
It wasn’t much better inside, where Perry took heated questions from Democrats about his conservative stands on Social Security, global warming and evolution. There did not seem to be a single Republican in the place.
“For his first public interaction, it probably could have been better orchestrated,” said former state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat who politely confronted Perry inside the cafe. “This is probably the most Democratic city in the state. I don’t know where his supporters are.”
Perry staged two events in New Hampshire on Wednesday that were open to reporters but not to the general public. On Thursday, Perry was doing random voter meet-and-greet events for the first time here. It did not generate the kind of enthusiasm that was evident earlier in the week in South Carolina and Iowa.
"That just goes with the territory when you're on the campaign trail," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. He said Portsmouth was a "liberal bastion" and that the governor did not mind mixing it up a bit on important issues.
"The governor is on a quest to introduce himself to the people of New Hampshire," Sullivan said. "We're happy to have robust debates and discussions on public policy issues."
Perry got a much friendlier reception later in Dover at Harvey's Bakery and Coffee Shop, where he had lunch with New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball. Afterward, he said he thought Perry is an "excellent candidate" and the Texas governor appears to excel at retail politics. "I think he thoroughly enjoyed this," Kimball said. "This is something I think is right up his alley."
In Portsmouth, Clark spoke with Perry for several minutes inside Popovers, after the Texas governor ate a few bites of the crispy brown pastry from which the cafe derives its name. The Democrat told him that she believed there is a consensus that human activity contributes to global warming.
“The jury is still out,” Perry told her, she said.
It was obvious that this would be a confrontational, hostile crowd before the governor’s entourage even arrived. Right after Perry walked into a small courtyard leading into Popovers, protesters loudly began chanting “Hands off our Medicare!” One man was screaming the phrase as Perry attempted to chat with voters.
“Stop the union busting, Perry!” he yelled. A variety of placards were bobbing up and down as they shouted. One, taking a line about Social Security out of Perry’s book Fed Up!, said “My Financial Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme.”
Perry has argued that Medicare and Social Security are essentially "bankrupt." He told Newsweek in November, "I think every program needs to stand the sunshine of righteous scrutiny. Whether it’s Social Security, whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s Medicare. You’ve got $115 trillion worth of unfunded liability in those three. They’re bankrupt. They’re a Ponzi scheme. "
Local police did not allow the poster-carrying protesters inside, but retired construction worker Bill Merrow, who depends on Social Security, pressed a blue placard onto the window, making it easily visible inside a few feet away from where Perry was speaking.
“Another Texas Idiot For Sale,” it said.
One protester, retired federal employee Larry Drake, said he was befuddled that Perry came to the heavily Democratic city, and predicted the Texan would have a tough sales job in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary early next year. Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is making the state a huge priority.
“I think Perry’s Texas swagger is not going over well in New England, and I think he’s dialing it back,” Drake said. “It’s a whole different environment. … It may work somewhere else.”
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