By Nandini Jayakrishna, Globe correspondent
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- President Obama's town hall on healthcare today -- his first since shouting matches and heckling met lawmakers trying to talk to their constituents -- was civil and sedate in comparison.
But activists on both sides sparred outside Portsmouth High School, some using bullhorns to get heard.
The hundreds of people were herded by police to either the pro-overhaul side or the anti-reform side. One overhaul supporter yelled, “You’re on the wrong side, you’re confused!”
But Greg Meyer, 39, of Hampton Falls, N.H., did not want to choose a side. He said if he could, he would stand in the middle of the street between the two sparring groups.
"If we did not believe in that separation, maybe we'd find a way to work together," Meyer said. "I'm on the side of the dialogue."
Supporting the proposals from Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were AFL-CIO members, Planned Parenthood representatives, and others, dancing to the beat of African drummers.
“I am here because fairness and equality dictate it, we need the public option for health insurance, there should be no restrictions for pre-existing conditions," said Stuart Russell, 66, of Concord, N.H., wearing a sticker that said “I am a healthcare voter.”
Terry Lochhead, 62, of Canterbury, N.H., representing the New Hampshire Alliance for Retired Americans, also said that she supports a public insurance option that Obama is pushing and said that prescription drug prices are too high for the elderly. “It’s ridiculous, people can’t get discounts,” she said.
Mark Mackenzie, president of the AFL-CIO's New Hampshire branch, said the price of healthcare is going through the roof. "We need to begin the process of reining in costs that are out of control.”
He said there is a lot of hype and misinformation in the public and the myths about the Democratic proposals need to be debunked. "If it were a program that would destroy healthcare for people in this country, we wouldn’t stand here," he said.
On the other side of the street from the school, Republicans and other opponents played music including "Proud to be an American."
One opponent, William Kostric, who said he was in his 30s and from Manchester, had a handgun strapped to his leg. Kostric -- who was holding up a sign declaring, "It is time to water the tree of liberty," a slogan popular with anti-government activists -- said he was licensed to carry a gun.
"It’s a political statement,” Kostric said, adding "If you don’t use your rights, then you lose your rights.”
Police asked him to move away from school property, where guns are not allowed, but he was not arrested. He moved to church property a short distance from the school.
Portsmouth police spokesman Lt. Frank Warchol said that as long as a weapon is not concealed and is not carried on the school property, a person is not breaking state law.
"We can't do anything about it," he said. "Obviously he's on our radar screen at this time."
UPDATE: Kostric was interviewed later this afternoon on MSNBC, where under questioning from "Hardball" host Chris Matthews he defended his right to bring a weapon to the event.
Asked about the history of presidential assassinations, Kostric said he was not threatening violence by bringing a gun to a presidential event.
David Call, 60, of Scandish, Maine, said that the healthcare system does not need to be overhauled and that Obama is pushing his proposals too fast.
“If it took the president six months to pick a dog, shouldn’t he spend six months on healthcare?" Call asked. "Slow down, what’s the rush?”
Call also reacted against the top two House Democrats asserting in an opinion piece published Monday that it was "un-American" to disrupt the town hall meetings. “We’re not un-American because we speak up against our government," he said.
Laurie A. Turner, 44, of Manchester, N.H., a history teacher, also said she opposes the reform plans. “It’s gonna take a lot of power out of the hands of the people,” she said.
Hal Posselt, 62, of Concord, N.H., for one, is hoping for real dialogue instead of shouting between the two sides.
"I’m so tired of hearing all the noise out there -- too much noise, not enough thinking and reasoning,” he said. The various plans need to be explained to the public better, he said.
UPDATE: After the event, Lisa Gravel, 39, of Manchester, N.H., a foe of Obama's healthcare overhaul plans, said she was disappointed she could not get into the meeting.
“Everyone coming out of there was clearly an Obama supporter,” she said, holding a sign that read ‘Stop Trashing Our Constitution.’ “He’s not having a healthy debate. He really doesn’t want to hear what I have to say or what any of the people on this side of the street have to say. I find that dishonest.”
As he came out of the gym, Bruce Gottlieb , 56, said he favored the overhaul and and thought the president made a strong case for it, but added that he would have liked Obama to delve into specifics about the program he envisions.
"It was too general,” said the West Hartford, Conn. native. “I’m leaving a little disappointed.”
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.