NEW PORT RICHEY - President George W. Bush greeted thousands of cheering supporters Tuesday morning at a campaign rally at Sims Park, preaching to the choir of GOP faithful that he deserves another four years in the Oval Office.
Waving tiny American flags and Bush/Cheney signs provided by the organizers, the crowd chanted along as Bush repeated his trademark taunt toward his challenger, Sen. John Kerry: "You can run, but you cannot hide." With the race hinging on Florida, Bush urged people to vote early and encourage their friends to do the same.
"If you're looking for sunshine, Florida is the place to come," said Bush, standing with the palm trees and the Pithlachascotee River at his back. "I'm looking for votes and Florida is the place to come."
The president sealed Anita Peters' vote with a kiss. As he shook hands with supporters after his 30-minute speech, Bush planted a friendly peck on Peters' right cheek.
"This is like Christmas for me," said the 40-year-old New Port Richey secretary, beaming. "I still can't touch the ground."
Behind the security gates, and out of the president's earshot, stood a much less receptive crowd.
At times more anti-Bush than pro-Kerry, the 40 or so protesters included high school students wearing nose rings and peace signs, single moms bemoaning their lack of health insurance and a health care worker shouting angry rants into a bull-horn.
"America is at risk! This world is at risk with this man at the controls," 48-year-old Dade City resident John Russell yelled through his bull-horn, his white button-down shirt soaked with sweat.
The historic event, which marked the first Pasco visit by a sitting president in recent memory, shut down the downtown area for more than two hours.
Sims Park was wrapped in metal barriers and orange mesh fencing. Main Street was lined with traffic barricades and yellow police tape. Some 6,000 attendees passed through airport-style metal detectors under a red-and-white tent - after removing their Bush/Cheney buttons, of course.
Here's a taste of the scene:
Pro-Bush cartoons confiscated
Security was tight at the entrance, where guards worked to keep the park free of dissenters. A cartoon sketch copied onto 4-by-6-inch slips of paper became the subject of a brief police investigation.
The cartoons depicted caricatured, dancing men with dark beards and turbans "Celebrating a Kerry victory." Upon inspection, it was apparent the cartoons were pro-Bush. But at first glance it was hard to tell, so authorities didn't take any chances.
Two New Port Richey police officers went looking for the man passing them out. They didn't find him. Meanwhile, volunteers at the entrance confiscated the cartoons from people as they entered the park.
"If you have one of these, you must surrender it before you enter," volunteer John King told those in line. People shrugged, and handed them over.
Paying homage, playing hooky
Florence M. Fisher, 84, brought her prized possession to the rally: An autographed photo of Bush, with Fisher's name printed at the bottom as a "sustaining member" of the Republican National Committee. It's an honor that goes to people who contribute at least $25 to the party.
"Isn't that beautiful? I love it," Fisher said of the gold-framed photograph, which normally rests on top of the television in her New Port Richey home. "He's as honest as that picture is."
Equally devoted was Carol Orshal, a Webster College student who skipped class Tuesday to see Bush. She did tell her professor - a Democrat.
"She said, "You what?!" the 37-year-old Hudson woman said, laughing. "I hope I don't get an F!"
Turned away at the gate
Not everyone with a ticket to the Bush event got inside. Event staff manning the entrance gate refused to let in a small group of protesters.
"It's a private party," a woman told Mary Villa of New Port Richey.
The statement made Villa, who adorned her gauzy white shirt with a "Mothers for Peace" necklace, livid.
"I'm 55 years old," she said, clutching her ticket. "I cannot believe I was turned down."
Mitchell High School senior Reva Castillenti, 17, tore up her ticket in disgust.
"I came here to see the president, and he didn't want to see me," said Castillenti, who had planned to share her photographs from the event with the school newspaper and yearbook.
"Get a life!"
Most of the anti-Bush crowd who gathered on Circle Avenue on Tuesday hadn't reached voting age. But the teens skipped school anyway to go head to head, and sometimes shout to shout, with Bush supporters twice their age.
As the country music revved up inside the park, their voices rose in a chorus of protest.
"We are the future! Educate us!" Castillenti yelled from beneath a "Women 4 Kerry" banner.
"We'll educate you," responded a trimly dressed man waiting in line to see the president. "Vote for Bush."
Noelle Deltufo, a 17-year-old who wrote "Power to the Peaceful" on her lime green shirt, tried a different tactic.
"Do you have any sons or daughters in Iraq?" she shouted at the crowd.
"I have three sons in the military," retorted 67-year-old Biagio Geremia 67 of Trinity. "Two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan."
Adults in the heavily pro-Bush crowd had little patience for the cluster of protesting teens, many of whom had facial piercings and cigarettes to accompany their homemade T-shirts and posters pushing for peace. For every John Kerry cheer, the president's supporters had a response:
"Get a life!"
"Kerry for president of France!"
"What's that in your nose?"
"Of course I'm going to vote for Bush when I look at you guys!"
"All future conservatives."
One stout man, clad in black leather and Harley-Davidson gear, also didn't take well to the protesters' periodic cursing.
"Have some class," he yelled, clutching his little girl. "There are kids here."
The best thing since McDonald's
Although city residents David Huber with his wife, Margie, called Bush's visit to New Port Richey the best thing "since McDonald's first came here," one City Council member was irked about the stop.
"I felt like they came to the city and used the city," said Tom Finn.
Finn said Tuesday that he was upset that city politicians were not invited to participate or attend. Nor is New Port Richey likely to get much national attention out of the Sims Park campaign stop, he said.
All told, "this had nothing to do with New Port Richey - not a single thing!" said Council member Finn, a registered Republican. "That's why I'm so upset at spending money on this."
From police and fire to park crews, Finn put the city's cost at about $20,000. While council member Matthew McCaffery got a ticket from the local GOP, Finn stayed at home and recorded the televised event.
"It just wasn't a good day for a walk in the park."
A scorching day for a visit
Helen McMullen, 76, stood in sun for an hour and a half waiting for the president. Finally, the 85-degree heat was too much for her. She leaned against her husband, feeling faint. "Get me out of here."
Her husband and rescue workers led her to the shade of a nearby first aid tent. A paramedic took McMullen's blood pressure as she sipped water and dabbed her forehead with a wet rag.
"Oh, that breeze is great," she said as her face went from bright red to something more normal.
Pasco County Fire Rescue officials said they took three people to the hospital for heat related issues. Several others, like McMullen, were treated at the scene.
No one for Nader
Denise Houston, 48, scanned the crowd of protesters.
"Where's the Ralph Nader group?" asked the New Port Richey woman.
She had printed a sign off her computer to support the perennial candidate but left it in the car, deciding first to see if anyone else in the Nader camp had ventured out for the presidential visit.
There wasn't a Nader sign in sight.
Houston thinks the country is due for new leadership, but she still got tickets to hear the president speak "for the experience," she said. She hasn't decided who to vote for Nov. 2.
"I still have an open mind to hear what he's going to say," Houston said.
A surprise cleanup
The crowd filed out of the rally shortly after noon, leaving red cups, water bottles, napkins and other trash scattered across Sims Park. Eleven-year-old Robert Griffith scooped up the debris into an old cardboard box he found by the bleachers.
"It looked like a dump to me," said the boy, shielded from the sun by a red, white and blue cap. "I figured, why not?"
Robert's good deed brought a smile to his mother's face. She was proud. And surprised.
"He doesn't do that in his room," said Diana Griffith, laughing.
Times staff writers Steve Thompson and Melia Bowie contributed to this report.