PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Newly-minted presidential candidate Rick Perry got a taste Thursday of the rough-and-tumble nature of presidential politics, with protesters dogging him on the campaign trail, demanding to know whether he thinks Social Security is unconstitutional and begging him to follow through on threats of Texas seceding.
Nearly two dozen hecklers greeted the Texas governor with signs saying, “Ricky Go Home” and “Seniors Say NO to Ricky.” As Perry prepared for a meet-and-greet at a cafe downtown, they began chanting, “Hands off Social Security and Medicare.”
“He’s appealing to the tea party,” said Larry Drake, a retired federal worker and Democrat who said he came Thursday to show his opposition to the Republican governor. “It’s like George W. Bush on steroids.”
Nearby, a young boy, prompted by his mother, asked Perry whether he believes in evolution.
“It’s a theory that’s out there,” Perry told the child. “It’s got some gaps in it. . . . In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”
During Perry’s time as governor, the Texas Board of Education has faced intense national scrutiny for its re-framing of controversial subjects, including evolution. In 2009, with Perry’s support, a bloc of socially conservative school board members was able to change the state’s education guidelines on evolution “to encourage schools to scrutinize ‘all sides’ of scientific theory,” a move some creationists hailed as a victory.
Despite some heated moments, the new candidate maintained a cool demeanor, managing to warm up some voters in this first-in-the-nation presidential primary state.
“He’s charming, no doubt,” John Tinios said as Perry met voters at Popovers, a cafe Tinios owns here. “He looks you in the eye like Bill Clinton.”
Tinios, who described himself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, had heard that Texas has one of the strongest economies in the country, and that was a mark in Perry’s favor, he said.
“But sometimes you have to listen to them for a while before you make up your mind. . . . You want someone that’s a leader, not just a leader of a party,” he said.
Perry's turn with New Hampshire voters came after remarks he made in Iowa this week brought rebukes from Democrats and Republicans, who said he had stepped into the political extremes by saying that another round of “quantitative easing” by the Federal Reserve would be “treasonous.” Perry did not back off the comment, saying the Fed should “open its books,” but his tone was more moderate.
On Thursday, Perry’s stop in Portsmouth was marked by meetings with curious businessmen and voters who came out to shout him down as he shook hands and patted toddlers’ heads.
“Did you say Social Security is unconstitutional?” Gail Mitchell, a small-business owner from Barrington, yelled as the governor walked along the sidewalk.
A man shouted, “Please secede,” referring to comments Perry has made about Texas leaving the United States because of what he considered encroachment by the federal government. Perry ignored them with a tight smile.
At an event in Dover later in the day, Perry ate lunch with five handpicked Republican activists, including a state legislator. As they chatted, Jamie Contois, who had driven two hours to meet the candidate, interrupted politely to ask about his jobs plan, which she said she opposes.
Contois kept the conversation going for nearly 15 minutes, stepping aside when two young girls approached to shake Perry’s hands, then jumping back into the conversation.
“His jobs plan sounds a lot like trickle-down economics,” Contois said later. “We’ve seen those policies enforced and they’ve led to a massive crash of the economy.”
Perry gave an upbeat summary of his visit to the Granite State:
“I’ve really enjoyed, over the last few days, getting to meet the people of New Hampshire. I’m learning a lot about you.”