By Ros Krasny
PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire (Reuters) - White House hopeful Rick Perry has hit New Hampshire hard since kicking off his bid for the Republican nomination, but the tough-talking Texan will struggle to win support in this early-voting state.
So far, Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is the easy front-runner in New Hampshire, which holds the country's first primary election in 2012. He has an 18 point lead over Perry, his closest contender.
And Perry, voicing social views New Hampshire Republicans do not share, will find it hard to narrow that divide.
"There are huge cultural differences between Northeast Republicans and Texas Republicans," said Andrew Smith, director of the survey center at the University of New Hampshire. "New Hampshire Republicans are moderate to liberal, Northeast Republicans," he said.
A poll done for the New Hampshire Journal this week showed Romney with 36 percent support, Perry debuting strongly at 18 percent, Texas Congressman Ron Paul third with 14 percent and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann at 10 percent.
Still, Perry's entry into the race has created a lot of buzz. "This was a dynamic change. You can already see the shift in the polling," said Jack Kimball, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Curious onlookers came out to see Perry on Thursday, peppering the governor with questions on topics from AIDS funding in the Third World to how he would increase federal revenue (hint: "raising taxes doesn't work").
Protesters from the Alliance for Retired Americans cast a shadow over Perry's visit to the town of Portsmouth, voicing concerns that the Republican would make cuts to entitlement programs a priority, if elected.
Chants of "Hands off Social Security and Medicare" went up as Perry, in white shirt and red tie, entered a cafe.
"People in New Hampshire love Social Security and Medicare. The support is across the board, no matter what party they support," said Terry Lochhead, 64, of Canterbury, New Hampshire. "Perry is very far out for New Hampshire."
In Dover, Perry told a voter he would not change the programs for people already receiving benefits or close to retirement. "The governor wants Social Security to be fiscally sustainable," said spokesman Ray Sullivan.
WON'T SHRINK FROM VIEWS
New Hampshire is not a must-win primary state for Perry as it is for Romney, since the Texan is expected to do well in other early-voting states including Iowa and South Carolina.
UNH's Smith said that to gain ground in the state, Perry needs to focus on jobs, the economy and debt, avoiding social issues where his conservative positions set him apart.
Perry has toned down the rhetoric he used in Iowa earlier in the week, when he appeared to, among other things, threaten the safety of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
But Sullivan said the candidate would not mask his views or try to hide his personality.
"Governor Perry is a Texan. A West Texan. There's nothing Governor Perry can do not to look, act and sound Texan. We would ask people to look at his record," Sullivan said.
In fact, voters called Perry personable, confident, polite and articulate, but some were more concerned about his record than his demeanor or Texas drawl.
"Perry's statement about Social Security being 'an illegal Ponzi scheme' is just too far out there to be a U.S. president," said Elyse Sedgley, 21.
Sedgley asked Perry if he would support raising the Social Security payroll tax cap -- a measure seen by some as a way to help shore up the program. "He said it was time we had a conversation about this," Sedgley related.
Perry drew a large crowd on Wednesday at a breakfast for businesspeople in Bedford, New Hampshire. But his reception was more polite than partisan. "He was giving applause lines, and the applause wasn't coming," said Smith. "He was subdued."
At the Bedford event, Perry raised eyebrows with comments on climate change, terming the issue "politicized" and "a scientific theory that still has not been proven."
"The global warming comment was insulting. I can't see how someone can win the presidency with a view like that," said Ben Pignatelli, 31, a Nashua businessman. "He's too socially conservative for the United States."
Marion Bartlett, a retired English teacher, said Perry was appealing -- "he has courage" -- but not without caveats, including his recent day-long Christian prayer rally in a Houston stadium. "I don't like flaunting religion," she said.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)
This story corrects Aug. 18 story to show Ron Paul was third and Michele Bachmann fourth in a New Hampshire poll