Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry went on the offensive Wednesday in his first swing through New Hampshire in nearly three weeks, vowing to "take an ax" to federal government departments, "tear down" Washington institutions and "use a sledgehammer to get the job done."
The aggressive rhetoric comes after days of self-deprecating humor following another high-profile debate misstep.
"I'm the outsider who's willing to step on people's toes if that's what's required," he told dozens of supporters gathered inside a packed Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.
The Texas governor didn't mention his gaffe during a nationally televised debate last week when he failed to recall a fundamental piece of his economic plan — an embarrassing episode that some Republicans described as Perry's "oops" moment.
While supporters continued to express optimism in his chances of winning the nomination, the misstep affected even Perry's most loyal Granite State supporters.
"My heart kind of fell," said Cliff Hurst, a prominent Perry supporter. He said what happened has "made it a little bit harder when you're reaching out" to get others to support Perry's campaign.
I'm the outsider who's willing to step on people's toes if that's what's required.
- Rick Perry, GOP Presidential Candidate
But as Perry tried to turn the page, he also faced new questions about an immigration record that has caused widespread concern among conservative activists.
At a Perry town hall-style meeting earlier Wednesday, those trying to attend what was billed as a public event were asked to prove they are American citizens. The forum was hosted by Granite State Manufacturing, a Manchester company that handles some defense contracts for the federal government.
There was some confusion about whether foreigners would be barred. Citing federal regulations, a company employee sat beside a Perry campaign staffer at the door and asked people for driver's licenses or other identification to prove citizenship.
The employee, who refused to give her name, said non-citizens wouldn't be allowed in.
Another company employee, assembly manager Shawn O'Hagan, later said immigrants should not have been barred from attending. But he said anyone who couldn't prove their citizenship would have to be escorted inside.
It was unclear whether any immigrants attended.
While Perry's rivals faced similar restrictions when they held events at companies that handle federal defense contracts, the issue brought unwanted attention Wednesday to Perry's complicated immigration record.
Some of his rivals privately seized on his decision to hold an event at such a location, while the leader of a regional immigration advocacy group was more vocal.
"It's disturbing, especially given his record on immigration," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "I find that discriminatory."
Perry has faced sustained criticism over a Texas policy that allows in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants. He also has struggled to win over some conservatives for being against putting up a fence along the border with Mexico.
In a debate earlier this year, Perry strongly defended his immigration record and branded as heartless those who would deny an education to foreign-born children brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own.
"I don't think you have a heart," he said then.
Some believe Perry's "heartless" comment towards his Republican rivals and using ethnically charged language to defend moderate parts of his immigration record is all in the hopes it will endear him to Latinos and their allies even if it angers his own party.
Outside the Nashua event, Republican Jay Godfrey, 25, waved a sign that said, "No government benefits for illegals."
"I'm not a big Obama fan," he said. "But I'm clearly not a fan of Perry either."
John Stephen, a prominent Perry supporter in the state and recent gubernatorial candidate, defended the Texas governor.
"There is no one that's done more through action to oppose illegal immigration than Rick Perry," he said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.