Thanks to a high-stakes election that has taken some vicious turns, the first debate of the season drew viewers who were especially keen to watch a smackdown between Sen. John Kerry (search) and President George W. Bush (search) after months of trading attacks.
In one downtown Manhattan bar, hundreds of people vied for floor space to watch the show, in an event co-sponsored by the New York Young Republicans Club and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century of New York.
The crowd — admittedly not representative of many corners of the country — mostly sported stickers emblazoned with slogans like "Mission not accomplished," with a handful of Bush supporters marked by a dramatic black-and-white "W" sticker thrown into the mix.
While the Republicans tended to be stingy with praise for Kerry's performance, some undecided voters said they had come away with a more favorable view of him.
"He debates very well and I was impressed tonight. The night was completely lopsided," said a 33-year-old who works in finance and gave his name as Tom. But Tom, a registered Republican originally from Anchorage, Alaska, said he wasn't yet ready to cross to the other side.
"In diplomacy, in the environment, in lying to the public and going into Iraq (search) instead of focusing on terrorism, [Bush has] lost my vote," Tom said. "But I don’t like Kerry at all. I think he’s an opportunist, I don’t think he has much character. As a registered Republican I’m not sure I can vote Democratic and have it on my record when I really don’t like the guy."
Another undecided registered Republican gave the debate to Kerry.
"I think Kerry definitely outshined [Bush] on almost every point," said 33-year-old Ari Ackerman, a business owner.
But while his expectations for Bush in the debate were "very low," Ackerman said he was still leaning toward the incumbent for his policies on Israel.
"Sometimes you have to say 'thank you' to the president of the United States for being supportive of an issue that's important," he said, adding that he was not sure if Kerry would be as supportive of Ariel Sharon's government. Still, "Kerry would be a good president," he said.
Ackerman planned to watch the upcoming debates and keep an open mind until Nov. 2.
The undecided voters weren't the only ones who'd been flip-flopping on the candidates. Some Democratic Kerry-backers who have been agonizing over what they perceive as a weak campaign expressed relief after the 90-minute face-off.
"I was a little worried. The Republicans are doing a very good job of scaring people from going to the polls, trying to make it sound as if it’s already a done deal," said a 36-year-old attorney who gave her name as Rhona. "It’s not a done deal, and I think this debate shows that."
Other Kerry supporters feared that the onetime Yale debate champ, who has been mocked for his extensive vocabulary and loquaciousness, would alienate voters by appearing condescending.
"I was worried he might not be approachable, might not be engaging to voters," said Barry Ford, 41. "I was pleasantly surprised. He was forceful, he was clear and, more importantly, he was simple in his language about why we should vote for him and why the president is wrong."
That Kerry's supporters were pleased with his performance was evident throughout the evening; their cheers often drowned out Bush's rebuttals. Judging by a totally unscientific applause assessment, the president's supporters appeared to be outnumbered about 50 to 1.
But being in the vast minority was empowering to at least one Bush fan. A willowy, tattooed brunette who bore an eerie resemblance to Kerry's daughter who Vanessa, heckled the Democrat from her perch atop a table. Several in the crowd yelled at her to shut up, while others resorted to misogynistic name-calling. Unfazed, she appeared to relish her unpopularity.
Contrary to many Democrats' assessments, most of the Republicans felt the evening ended in a draw.
"I think [Bush] did well, I think he held his own," said Robert Hornak, 39, head of the NYCRC. "I don’t think he was outstanding, but I think he definitely stood his ground, explained his positions, drilled his points home well and committed no gaffes, which was really all he needed to do."
And then there were the pranksters in the audience . . . the Communists for Kerry (who, in fact, are rooting for Bush) and the Billionaires for Bush (who, of course, are Kerry supporters).
"We're trying to get Comrade Kerry elected and get that capitalist enabler George Bush out of office," said 17-year-old Komoselutes Rob of Communists for Kerry.
"Even though he, too, is a capitalist, he supports my socialist values more than President Bush," said Rob.
Asked several times if his group was a parody, Rob insisted with a straight face that the Communists for Kerry were not, in fact, supporting Bush.
On the other side were the Billionaires for Bush, who in fact are supporting Kerry.
"There should have been some advertising, some commercials to generate money for the U.S.A.," said Hugh G. Monument, VII.
The Bush "supporter" then extolled the president's virtues.
"What I love about Bush is his money and his ability to make more money," he said.
Monument also said that he had increased his ketchup intake as a nod to Kerry and his wife, Teresa.
So why show support for both seemingly night-and-day candidates?
"Darling," he explained, "it's called hedging."
In a version of this article that was published earlier, the Communists for Kerry group was portrayed as an organization that was supporting John Kerry for president. FOXNews.com’s reporter asked the group’s representative several times whether the group was legitimate and supporting the Democratic candidate, and the spokesman insisted that it was. The Communists for Kerry group is, in fact, a parody organization.