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.
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.
That was a contradiction the GOP exploited throughout the week, giving prime-time speaking slots to a maverick ex-POW (Sen. John McCain), a socially liberal governor (Arnold Schwarzenneger), a lifelong Democrat (Sen. Zell Miller), and of course an adoring, inoffensive wife (Laura Bush). Even Mr. Cheney came across to some as relatively avuncular while picking apart Mr. Kerry's long record of liberal votes in the Senate.
Social issues, as expected, were greatly minimized to preserve the one-big-happy-family tableau. Among prime-time speakers, only Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) addressed issues of faith and family head-on. "Two thousand years ago, a man said, 'I have come to give life and to give it in full.' In America, I have the freedom to call that man Lord, and I do," she said, earning a huge ovation from the faithful. "The right to worship God isn't something Republicans invented, but it is something Republicans will defend."
If family advocates felt slighted by their lack of podium time, they were not complaining too loudly. After all, they had managed to push through one of the most socially conservative platforms ever, adding language disapproving of civil unions to an already-tough plank against gay marriage. Besides, the White House was doing its best to keep its base happy while staying beneath the media radar. At a Tuesday afternoon session that was closed to the press, conservative icons like Ralph Reed and Sen. Sam Brownback briefed delegates on sensitive issues like abortion and stem-cell research. Despite the low-key nature of the session, most delegates seemed pleased. "They're with us all the way," confided one at a party later the same night. "Bush really gets it."
What the president most needed to get from the convention was a bounce in the polls that would force Mr. Kerry to play catch-up in the homestretch. With that in mind, speaker after speaker returned to 9/11, the political moment that defined Mr. Bush as a steady, take-charge leader.
Even the president's arrival in New York on Wednesday was designed to reinforce the theme. While Mr. Kerry sought to burnish his war-hero image by sailing into Boston with his Vietnam buddies, Mr. Bush surrounded himself with New York firemen who broke with their national union to support the president who had embraced them-literally and metaphorically-in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
The firefighters' endorsement is a sign of just how powerfully 9/11 is remembered by many. Despite a salary feud with Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg-NYC firehouses display posters condemning the "millionaire mayor" who turned down union requests for a raise-the firefighters remain steadfast supporters of the president.
Among the broader electorate, Republican strategists hope similar memories of 9/11 will trump other issues that might be dragging down the president's support. But for the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out during the week-the majority of them New Yorkers who lived through the attacks-any goodwill Mr. Bush earned by his response to terrorism is already long forgotten.
Though various events throughout the week were designed to highlight poverty, joblessness, gay marriage, and abortion rights, it was the war in Iraq that most animated the crowds-and most worried the White House. With polls showing that half of all Americans now believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, GOP image makers were desperate to prevent protesters from focusing attention on the issue. Thanks to a compelling, well-scripted convention, the news media largely stayed on-theme, forcing protesters to up the ante as the week went on.
By the second day of the convention, organized, centralized marches had given way to acts of civil disobedience all across town. On Tuesday alone, police arrested 1,187 demonstrators who blocked streets and sidewalks at sites stretching from the New York Public Library to Ground Zero. Protesters tossed garbage cans, overturned vendors' carts, and set small fires. One group swarmed a bus carrying delegates from Louisiana, preventing them from entering the convention site.
Despite the largest security presence ever seen in New York, some protesters did manage to slip past the guards that seemed to be stationed every few feet. One rushed onto the outdoor set during a live broadcast of Chris Matthews's Hardball show on MSNBC, and another got within a few feet of Mr. Cheney's box inside the convention hall itself. During a Republican youth event on Wednesday, a handful of activists used fake credentials to slip into the hall, then interrupted a speech by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
Though New York officials tried hard to make delegates feel welcome in the staunchly Democratic city, by mid-week the escalating protests had clearly taken their toll. Delegates rarely seemed to venture on foot outside the police barricades that stretched for blocks around Madison Square Garden. Instead, shuttle buses ferried them quickly along specially marked travel lanes, bypassing shopkeepers and restaurateurs who grumbled about the lack of business.
Those who did brave the city streets quickly discovered the advantage of busing. With protesters on every corner, it was open season on anyone wearing the large, plastic credential cards needed to get into the Garden. "You people are stupid!" screamed a pudgy, gray-haired man when he spied a group of three young delegates approaching on Broadway. "You display an appalling ignorance of history," he lisped, following the quickly retreating threesome. "So does your Miss -Condo-leezza Rice. You're all so-ignorant!"
Half a block up the street, an older couple from the Midwest pretended to look at a shop window until the gray-haired man turned a corner and disappeared. "We don't wear our credentials on the street," the wife confided, patting her purse. "Sometimes I think it's cowardly, but that kind of thing can be unsettling," she said, gesturing toward the scene of the verbal assault.
"Maybe we're just too old for this," her husband added. "Politics isn't what it used to be. People don't act like that where we come from."
Indeed, where most voters come from, the tactics and rhetoric of the NYC protesters would be considered beyond the pale. By growing increasingly strident and lawless in their efforts to steal the spotlight from the GOP Convention, the protesters threatened to alienate the moderate swing voters Mr. Kerry must woo if he hopes to oust Mr. Bush in November.
By convention's end, there were signs that even jaded New Yorkers had had enough of the protesters. On Wednesday night, a DNC volunteer on the tony Upper West Side found himself repeatedly ignored as he asked pedestrians to "help us get rid of Bush." In a busy half-hour around dinnertime, not a single passerby stopped to read his materials or make a donation.
"Folks aren't too happy with us right now," he shrugged. "People may agree with our cause, but the protesters aren't winning any friends. You can't get anywhere this week. All you want to do is stay home and wait until it's over."
Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center in Washington, isn't surprised by that reaction. "Obviously there is the potential within New York itself for the protests to upset people, but New York and New Jersey aren't exactly swing states," he notes. "The real question is whether people in the other 48 states see the wackos in action."
Mr. Graham says initial coverage emphasized the overall peacefulness of the demonstrations, despite the fact that police arrested hundreds of protesters on the very first day. "TV is presenting them as the finest example of American democracy," Mr. Graham complains. Even the visuals communicated that the demonstrators were mainstream moms pushing strollers rather than the "angry radicals with frizzy hair and tie-dyed T-shirts."
Still, by week's end the growing lawlessness of the demonstrations and the sheer number of arrests-some 2,000 in all-may have been enough to break through the media stonewalling. Only time and public-opinion polls will tell whether the president's message of safety and stability got a boost from the anger and anarchy outside the hall. If undecided voters are shocked by what they saw on the streets of New York, Mr. Bush's post-convention bounce could be bigger than analysts expected, putting him in control with just eight weeks to go.