“The fact is that there’s nothing ailing America that the rebirth of freedom cannot cure,” Perry told the audience of about 150 at the Derry opera house, a popular venue for presidential contenders. “We’re going to bring that prosperity back by enlisting America’s greatest economic advantage, and that is freedom. Freedom from too much government, freedom from too much spending, freedom from too much borrowing, freedom from too much regulation.”
This was Perry’s first town hall, a traditional venue for New Hampshire voters to vet presidential candidates every four years. Perry has campaigned in New Hampshire four times since entering the race to be the Republican nominee to face off against President Obama next year.
Perry’s aides have said that part of his campaign strategy would include all-out efforts in every state, every caucus and every primary. The Texas governor has rocketed to the top of most polls since declaring his candidacy in mid-August.
But New Hampshire presents particular challenges for Perry because of the popularity and organizational might of his top rival for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney. Romney not only has been preparing for 2012 since his first go at the nomination in 2008, but he was also the governor of neighboring Massachusetts and owns a lakefront vacation home in New Hampshire.
Perry’s town hall was not nearly as packed or cheering as Romney’s event at the same spot in July. And Perry’s campaign is still building an organization in the state, a fact that even neutral Republicans said presents a challenge for him.
“He’s building a good campaign, but he’s somewhat late to building that campaign,” said Jim Foley, the chairman of the Derry Town Republican Committee, who introduced Perry on Friday but said he will remain neutral through New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary early next year. “He’s going up against campaigns that have been up here one to three years.”
One local Republican who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly lamented Perry’s slim schedule in New Hampshire. He said Perry will be back in the state Oct. 11 for a televised debate at Dartmouth College — the event is co-sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg — but he said there are no current plans for Perry to visit New Hampshire for the following three weeks.
That is not smart, the Republican said, because Perry needs to meet New Hampshire voters to overcome lingering perceptions that he performed weakly in the last couple of national debates.
“Governor Perry is not up here enough,” the Republican said. “He did well tonight, and there are so many more opportunities for that.”
Romney’s organization, in contrast, was in full view Friday, when campaign workers stood outside Perry’s event handing out a phony jobs plan called “Rick Perry’s Plan to Get America Working Again.” On the cover, Perry is seen shooting a pistol into the air, and the pages inside are blank. The workers also gave away copies of Romney’s real jobs plan — all 160 pages of it. The Romney campaign also sent someone dressed as Pinocchio to call attention to what campaign officials described as Perry’s false statements on such issues as immigration.
Perry took questions for about an hour. He largely stuck to his talking points, touting his state’s record of job creation and trying to shore up support in two areas where he has taken beatings in debates: illegal immigration and Social Security.
Perry’s rivals have criticized him for signing the Texas DREAM Act, granting in-state tuition to certain illegal immigrants. To counter that, Perry was introduced Friday by John Stephens, a one-time Republican candidate for New Hampshire governor, this way: “There is no governor, there is no person in this race taking a stronger stand against illegal immigration in words or actions than Governor Perry.”
Perry also fielded several questions about Social Security, addressing the controversial statement from his recent book, “Fed Up!,” in which he described Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie.” Perry didn’t back away from the Ponzi scheme comparison. “That is, in essence, the description and characterization of a Ponzi scheme: Those in first get the money; those in last don’t,” he said. But he did promise the elderly and middle-aged questioners that their benefits would not be affected. His goal, he said, is to begin a conversation about reducing Social Security costs — but in a slow, transitional way that younger Americans can plan for.
Slapping back at Romney, who has led the charge against Perry’s statements on Social Security, he said: “For those approaching retirement, planning on Social Security, it will be there. It will be there in total. Don’t let anybody — anybody — try to say: ‘This guy is trying to take your Social Security away.’ That is an outright irresponsible statement.”