Cover Story

Split screen

Anger outside the hall confronted GOP determination within to reelect President Bush. Hecklers won attention from reporters-and police-but their obscene street theater may hurt their cause come Election Day.

Issue: "2004 Election: Dubyafest," Sept. 11, 2004

NEW YORK - It's Sunday evening, the crowd is singing "Amazing Grace," and throngs of true believers are making their way down the aisles. But this is hardly church, and no one is feeling worshipful.

As spectators gawk from behind police barricades, scores of flag-draped caskets stream down 33rd Street, past the flagship Macy's that bills itself as the World's Biggest Store. At 5 p.m. the protest parade already has been going on for hours, a boiling river of resentment stretching some two miles long through the streets of Midtown Manhattan. New York hasn't seen a demonstration this big since the anti-nuclear rallies of the early 1980s.

This year it's the GOP Convention that has protesters going nuclear. Many marchers can barely contain their contempt for the party that's about to descend upon Madison Square Garden. T-shirts and placards are painted with obscenities rough enough to earn an R rating if Michael Moore ever decided to make a documentary film about the march.

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High overhead, a Jumbotron screen on Macy's facade seems to mock the protesters with a live broadcast of Fox News. Each time George Bush's face appears onscreen, marchers erupt in boos and raise a finger in salute. "Fox News sucks," they chant in unison, drowning out the hymns being sung as a funeral dirge for America's war dead.

And then, just when it seems the anger couldn't get any deeper, an old quote from Mr. Bush flashes across the screen, asserting that God had called him to run for president. The marchers howl in disdain, clutch at their throats, pretend to vomit. One man screams an obscenity that seems especially topical given the large number of horse-mounted police along the parade route. Immediately the crowd takes up the two-syllable chant, and "Amazing Grace" is all but forgotten.

This wasn't the reception the GOP envisioned when it decided to bring its convention to New York City for the first time ever. In the wake of 9/11, Mr. Bush was riding a tidal wave of popularity that carried him to historic highs in public-opinion polls. With political capital to spare, gambling on a warm welcome in traditionally Democratic New York seemed like a smart enough bet. Renominating Mr. Bush in Manhattan would be a fitting tribute to the struggling city as well as a taunt to terrorists who thought they could disrupt the American way of life.

Two years, 1,000 lives, and tens of -billions of dollars later, it's Americans who are disrupting the city and terrorizing wide-eyed delegates from the Heartland. Coupled with emotionally charged issues like abortion and gay marriage, the war in Iraq has touched off a kind of rage unseen since Vietnam, deepening political antipathies into an emotion that can only be described as hate. From Ivy League students to gray-haired grandmothers, protesters can barely mention the president's name without unleashing a stream of four-letter words. Where marchers in the past might carry placards urging a president to go home, the New York crowd is far more likely to tell him to go to hell.

Inside the heavily fortified Garden, of course, it's an entirely different story. Here, too, the delegates sing "Amazing Grace," but the hymn comes as a tribute to the victims of 9/11. On the platform, a steady parade of speakers sings the president's praises on issues ranging from education to the war on terror, and the throngs on the floor break into semi-spontaneous chants of "four more years."

Whether on the street or on the floor, the well-choreographed political theater in New York was intended for a much broader audience than just the unfortunate locals who found it nearly impossible to get anywhere by car, subway, or even on foot. Though no real news was being made at the convention, strategists on both sides hope they at least made an impression. With only a few weeks left for undecided voters to make up their minds, the images coming out of New York could prove decisive in the deadlocked election.

THE IMAGES FROM THE CONVENTION itself were everything a photo stylist could have dreamed of. From the opening gavel to Wednesday's appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney, every moment came off with near perfection. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani started things off by ripping into John Kerry with a passion that seemed to surprise even some veteran journalists. "Ouch," whispered one reporter in the press stand halfway through the speech, and another muttered, "First blood." Still, the next day's reviews were generally glowing: Moderates, evidently, can say things that conservatives can't.

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