Jeff Baenen, File, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — When a prankster dumped a box of glittering confetti in Newt Gingrich's lap at a book-signing, the presidential candidate brushed off the stunt with a smile and quipped that it was "nice to live in a free country."
But the man's easy access to Gingrich raises questions about security on the campaign trail, particularly in the early months before the Secret Service begins guarding candidates. And the first events of the 2012 campaign are playing out just a few months after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
For White House hopefuls, security is always a delicate balance between protection and accessibility.
"No one wants police barricades separating them from a candidate," said Mark Daley, a Democratic consultant who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008. "There is no question that campaigns have to be accessible. It's a turnoff to some voters if they don't get a chance to meet with a candidate."
Long before the January attack on Giffords, security was a concern for politicians who know they have to confront a sometimes-angry public.
"The grim reality is our elected officials put themselves in harm's way every day," said Tim Albrecht, a GOP consultant who worked with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008. "There is no way you can stop something from happening, but you do as much as you can to keep your candidate as safe as possible."
Albrecht, now a spokesman for Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said security for presidential candidates tends to start small in the early stages, when campaign events are more intimate.
"Once you get past Iowa and New Hampshire, and you have a clearer picture of who the nominee might be, your crowds get bigger and you want to have security," he said. But campaigns must be careful that bodyguards don't "stick out like a sore thumb."
As the primaries progress, candidates often add a personal security detail paid for by the campaign. They also alert police about campaign events so that local authorities can increase patrols or other safety measures depending on the event and the size of crowd, Daley said.
When Rep. Michele Bachmann planned a visit to Bluffton, S.C., last month, police prepared carefully because the city had problems with a couple of previous tea party events, including one where tea party activists clashed with counter-protesters.
"The fact is, we certainly are not trying to put anybody off, but in the age of Gabrielle Giffords and that sort of situation, there is going to have to be increased security," Police Chief David McAllister said.
Bachmann eventually moved her events beyond city limits. And McAllister turned security over to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department.
An Associated Press reporter counted at least eight officers on that April 16 visit, with a minivan following Bachmann and at least one plainclothes officer cradling an automatic rifle. The minivan and at least one other vehicle packed with plainclothes officers escorted her from one restaurant event to another.
Bachmann spokesman Andy Parrish said the campaign had no role in the security arrangements.
In March, Bachmann was interrupted in New Hampshire by protesters who were let into the room after portraying themselves as civic-minded college students.
Jennifer Horn, a former congressional candidate who organized the forum, said event planners "never want to turn young people away who are expressing an interest in a democratic process.
"Did we regret the way it turned out? Absolutely. Do we regret trying to maintain an open-door policy to young people? No. But obviously we've got to find a better way to do it."
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