PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — It was supposed to be a friendly meeting with voters inside a local coffee shop, but Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry's first stop in New Hampshire on Thursday was overshadowed by protesters.
As the Texas governor tried to shake hands, some chanted "Go Back to Texas" and waved signs like the one that read, "America Says No to Texas Ugly." That appeared to be a reference to Perry's remarks Monday about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and how he would be treated "pretty ugly" in Texas if he "prints more money between now and the election."
The New Hampshire Alliance for Retired Americans organized the protest outside the downtown Popovers Bakery & CafÉ, although some hecklers appeared to be acting independently.
Former Democratic state Sen. Burt Cohen shouted "Rick Perry is a threat to America" as the Republican governor and his wife made small talk with voters a few feet away. Perry largely ignored the protests.
Asked about their Social Security concerns, he said, "If they're all senior citizens, they don't have a thing to worry about."
In the past Perry has referred to Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and questioned its constitutional standing. He did not take direct questions from reporters Thursday about those previous statements.
Perry's chief of staff, Ray Sullivan, also declined to comment on issues of constitutionality. He said the governor wants a "robust debate about entitlements — a robust debate about extending the retirement age for younger people and for other changes that will make Social Security and Medicare more stable and financially sound going forward."
There was tremendous buzz surrounding Perry's decision to join the Republican presidential field. Having not visited the first-in-the-nation primary state in nearly two decades, he has already spent three days here since the Saturday announcement. His Politics & Eggs speech in Bedford on Wednesday drew one of the largest crowds to the popular series in recent memory.
But while known for charisma and Texas swagger, Perry has stumbled at times in retail political settings.
Outside the coffee shop, as the protesters chanted, one voter asked for his position on global warming in Texas.
"We teach the facts," Perry responded slowly, looking for the right words. "You'll have to go look in the class books."
The day before, in Bedford, Perry said he doesn't believe in manmade global warming.
The questioner, Tim Chyrsostom, a 44-year-old Democrat from Canterbury, was not happy with the response.
"That was a pretty direct question and that was a pretty direct dodge," he said.
Later in the day, Sullivan said Perry expects to draw heat from all directions.
"The governor has clearly made a big influential splash this week," Sullivan said. "And he's quickly become a major candidate for president, so we would expect to draw fire from the White House, as we have, and even from the other Republicans in the race. It's part of the process."
State GOP Chairman Jack Kimball suggested that the protesters helped Perry.
"I think people want to see somebody that certainly stands his ground. Got to throw some punches? He can do that, too," Kimball said.