The handful of students gathered to see George W. weren't going to take no for an answer.
They had been waiting at least an hour in the bright sunshine and they had something to show the G.O.P. candidate: signs that read "Eat my Bush," "Stay out of my uterus" and placards that showed a red-white-and-blue elephant snorting cocaine.
Security working Bush's Seminole Community College (SCC) campaign rally last Wednesday, Oct. 25, were in no mood for the students' antics. They roped off a free-speech zone 100 yards from the entrance of the Health Building where Bush, traveling by bus from Daytona Beach to Tampa along the voter-rich Interstate 4 corridor, was to stop for a scheduled Q&A session. Protesters' view of Bush -- and his of them -- was blocked by a tree-covered knoll, hindering what the students considered a true show of democracy.
But the students, about 30 of them, would not be denied. They broke the marker, a white line of string that outlined the so-called free-speech zone, and restrung it 20 yards closer to a crowd of Bush supporters.
Then, when Bush's double-Winnebago-sized campaign bus pulled up, they ignored the string and rushed forward anyway.
Blocking their path were three security officers in ties and suits.
"I'll take the signs or [you can] go back," one of the officers said.
This hadn't been the first obstacle the students encountered as they tried to get a look at Bush. Many grumbled that college administrators had allotted only 20 tickets for the 30,000 student body. Most of SCC's 350 tickets went to faculty or employees on a first-come, first-served basis. Meanwhile, the county Republican Party had control of about 1,500 tickets, guaranteeing a celebratory backdrop for their presidential candidate in the hall that actually held about 1,000 people.
"Very few students had an opportunity to score tickets," said Michael Hoover, an SCC political science professor, holding an anti-Bush sign over his head.
According to the students kept at bay, there were other, more obvious signs that they weren't welcome. Some were told they wouldn't be allowed inside simply because they had joined the protest group. Others who did have tickets were harassed by plainclothes officers (a mix of Seminole County deputies, Orlando Police and Secret Service).
Sophomores Jennifer Hawes, Brian North and Meghann Sellers were standing in line to enter the hall when officers approached them and asked whether they belonged to the protest group. They lied and said no. Unconvinced, a female officer startled Sellers by pulling open her jacket and asking about the anti-Bush message on her shirt. Sellers eventually dropped out of line; Hawes and North managed to get in.
There they found that George W. had decided against the Q&A in favor of a rally-the-troops speech. "This place is on fire," he could be heard whooping over loudspeakers placed outside. "You know what? So is this campaign."
Hawes and North were apparently too tepid for the Bush audience; a volunteer asked them to leave, suggesting they should surrender their seats to someone more enthusiastic. "There were only about 10 college students from this campus in there," Hawes estimated.
Outside on the lawn, security had given up on the idea of moving the anti-Bush group back to the free-speech zone. An uneasy peace ensued. The students camped out just several yards from Bush supporters, some of whom held up pro-life signs.
A quartet of singers wearing toga-like garments provided a bit of levity for both sides. Holding a sign that read "Buddhist Monks for Gore" and singing to the tune of "When the Saints Come Marching In," the group vocalized, "Oh when the cash/comes flowing in." Several of them kept time with toy tambourines. One wore a rubber Gore mask.
The good times lasted only so long, though. When the loudspeakers carried George W.'s introduction of his brother Jeb, the anti-Bush faction booed Florida's governor. Conversely, when George W. mentioned his generous tax break, Bush's fans yelped with glee. But the students weren't happy: "How about cutting corporate welfare?" one shouted.
The conflict grew more personal as Bush ended his speech and the rally ended. "We pay for our own education. Why can't we go in there?" students asked the crowd streaming out. They were clearly agitated when several women responded, "We're working people. We pay your education."
But Bush supporters also engaged in the time-honored tradition of belittling the opponent. One walked by the protesters, sniffed the air, and said "smelly." Others were more conciliatory. A silver-haired woman hugged some of the protesters and said, "Bush loves everybody. Even Gore."
Both sides eventually dispersed to sit in the long line of traffic bottlenecked at the exit of the college.
The only mishap anyone could remember occurred inside. John McCain, the former Bush opponent and maverick Republican senator who campaigned with Bush Wednesday, made the kind of verbal gaffe that George W. is roundly criticized for, referring not to the Bush/Cheney ticket but to "Gore/Cheney" instead.
Jennifer Whittaker, an SCC sophomore who witnessed George W.'s entire speech, wasn't persuaded; she said it lacked specifics and ignored the social issues she cares about. "He's a good speaker," she said, "but it's very easy to read between the lines."