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."
The following month, Horn helped host a forum featuring Bachmann and several other potential presidential candidates, but this time organizers hired a police officer to patrol the parking lot because one of the participants, whom she declined to name, had "faced issues in the recent past."
"It worked out great," she said. "The voters were able to get as close to that person as anyone else."
Major presidential and vice presidential candidates generally start receiving protection from the Secret Service about 120 days before an election, said Max Milien, a Secret Service spokesman.
Exceptions occurred in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama received protection before the nominating convention.
Milien declined to comment on why Obama received protection earlier than usual but explained that candidates can request security before the typical time. Those requests are decided by an advisory board and the secretary of Homeland Security.
Candidates are also free to hire off-duty officers or private security. Sarah Palin was not a candidate when she did a book-signing in 2009 at Minnesota's Mall of America, but her staff hired local, off-duty police.
It's common for police to help the Secret Service or to safeguard a candidate without Secret Service protection.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said the Giffords shooting definitely changed the security atmosphere on the campaign trail.
"Our job is public safety — not candidate safety, not political," Stanek said.
After the shooting, Stanek said, his office contacted all members of the area's congressional delegation and told them if they planned an event in Hennepin County to contact his office, and they would assess the situation.
He said there were many calls from congressional offices immediately after the shooting, but those have tapered off.
Gingrich, who only announced his candidacy a week ago, appeared in Minneapolis on Tuesday for a paid speech hosted by a private group, the Minnesota Family Council. The event was closed to the public, but the book-signing was open.Comment on this story
Only one uniformed police officer was visible outside the event, and no obvious security was inside when Gingrich got the confetti dumped on him. The prankster was pushed out of the room by a Family Council member.
Chuck Darrell, a spokesman for the group, said he didn't know exactly what security arrangements had been made.
"We told the hotel we might have protesters and that's it," Darrell said.
Longtime New Hampshire GOP consultant Dave Carney, who is backing Gingrich, called security a no-win situation.
"It's difficult, and it gets worse every cycle," he said. "You can't live in la-la land and say it's not going to happen. Something bad is going to happen."
Crumb reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington; Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C.; and Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.