GORHAM, N.H. — Rod Webber perched on a ledge inside the old opera house, waiting for his moment as Jeb Bush answered questions at a candidate town hall meeting. He wore a top hat, a wrinkled tie, a suit vest and a daisy woven into his Old Testament-caliber beard. He clutched a bouquet of rumpled yellow flowers.
In short, he looked like someone who could put a presidential contender and his staff on edge.
But not Bush.
He called on Webber — explaining to the crowd that he “kind of liked the guy” — and Webber asked him if he would propose tax incentives to encourage people to feed the poor. The Republican candidate politely demurred, saying grass-roots solutions are better than government. Not the response that Webber, who is more of a socialist, was looking for. But he was glad to get his moment. And Bush seemed to enjoy the exchange, too.
“I love you, Flower Boy,” he said.
For the next six months or so, presidential candidates will be dealing with quite an assortment of people. They will meet them in the shmooze-friendly settings of key primary states: in photo lines or outside general stores, at pizza joints and ice cream parlors, at county fairs, cattle calls and town halls. There will be voice recorders and cameras everywhere catching their every move — and there will be activists, detractors and all-purpose weirdos trying to get a reaction out of them.
These unscripted moments can shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of these presidential hopefuls, as well as their campaign tactics and communication styles. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who casts himself as a boisterous, tell-it-like-it-is type, is known for jabbing his finger in the direction of adversaries, yelling things such as, “Sit down and shut up!” Scott Walker (R), the disarmingly bland governor of Wisconsin, didn’t react last week when protesters carrying lewd signs confronted him in Philadelphia; he ignored them to focus on his cheesesteak instead. Last month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who was a noted debater in college, got into a spirited back-and-forth with antiwar activists outside the White House, and the 24-minute exchange went viral.
At a recent town hall meeting in West Lebanon, N.H., Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had time to answer only five questions — and Valerie Stefani took note of who got to ask them.
“He only took calls from white men,” the Dartmouth College employee noted loudly to a group of reporters after Paul did not call on her. (She said she wanted to ask about campaign finance reform.)
As pens hit notepads, a campaign staff member scurried over to do a bit of damage control, beckoning Stefani for a private chat with the candidate. “I was surprised but impressed that he talked with me,” Stefani said afterward.
When handled poorly, an exchange with an activist can bruise a campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a noted curmudgeon who is running as a Democrat, huffed off the stage after protesters interrupted him with the chant “Black lives matter!” at the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Arizona. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D), who can display the overaffability of a camp counselor, tried to greet the same chant by agreeing — but when he quickly added that “white lives matter; all lives matter,” he was criticized for undermining the message. (This is probably why questions for Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton tend to be screened, or are answered via Facebook by handlers who help make sure there are no typos.)
Perhaps no one knows better how candidates deal with agitators than Webber. For months, he has been driving his 2002 Mazda Protege all over the country, handing out flowers to candidates in exchange for a prayer for world peace, and talking about fracking, gay rights and poverty along the way.
At an event for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), security warned him that his bouquet posed a security threat, so he went outside and put each individual flower in his beard. He got into a tiff with Mike Huckabee (R) after telling the former Arkansas governor that the Bible has more passages about the sinfulness of shaving than it does about homosexuality. But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Webber that he will say a prayer for peace every time they see each other.
Webber, who is from Boston, declined to give his age, but a search of Boston arts coverage from the early 2000s puts him at 41. He may present himself like a vagrant, but it’s partly an act. He has performed in indie bands and produced low-budget movies (including the one he directed and co-starred in with future art-house superstar Greta Gerwig). He said he began the project of handing out flowers for peace because it made his girlfriend smile when she was having health problems. He has spent about $4,000 trailing the candidates, traveling with a buddy who films his interactions. They have designs on turning the experience into a documentary.
“No, this is not entirely my real self,” he said. “But by no stretch of the imagination does that make my mission any less genuine. But I realize the power of imagery.”
No one on the trail has been more welcoming of him than Bush, whose staff recently tweeted a YouTube clip of the two praying onstage together in Iowa.
Bush’s embrace of Webber doesn’t make the Republican establishment’s favorite son a hippie. But it dovetails with the message he has been sharing at stop after stop: that he wants to run a “joyful” and open campaign.
At the town hall meeting in Gorham, an angry woman railed against Bush for wanting to cut Medicare funding. An aide tried to pull the microphone, but Bush said to let her finish. At a VFW hall, Bush answered questions from climate activists, noting that he already had answered them but would be happy to do so again. Did his responses make climate activists or the Medicare lady happy? No, but he managed to make himself look respectful and open-minded. Bush has made a point of ridiculing Clinton for roping off the media at some events; in contrast, he seems determined to appear as the guy who can take questions from anyone, even the beardos among us.
Meanwhile, having dealt with Webber in the past, Bush would have been wise to the fact that Webber, for all his eccentric trappings, likes to lob “softball” questions.
“I want to be part of the conversation,” Webber said after the meeting. “If I ask hardballs, he’s not going to call on me.”
Back in the room, Webber drew a warm round of applause from the audience. “Don’t encourage him too much,” Bush said, laughing. “He might end up following me around everywhere.”
“I am,” Webber said.
And really, that’s fine by Bush.