Lisa Dupler, a 33-year-old from Columbus, held up a rainbow-striped John Kerry sign outside the Nationwide Arena on Friday, as Republicans streamed out after being rallied by George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A thickset woman with very short, dark hair, Dupler was silent and barely flinched as people passing her hissed "faggot" into her ear. An old lady looked at her and said, "You people are sick!" A kid who looked to be about 10 or 11 affected a limp wrist and mincing voice and said, "Oh, I'm gay." Rather than restraining him, his squat mother guffawed and then turned to Dupler and sneered, "Why don't you go marry your girlfriend?" Encouraged, her son yelled, "We don't want faggots in the White House!"
The throngs of Republicans were pumped after seeing the president and the action hero. But there was an angry edge to their elation. They shrieked at the dozen or so protesters standing on the concrete plaza outside the auditorium. "Kerry's a terrorist!" yelled a stocky kid in baggy jeans and braces. "Communists for Kerry! Go back to Russia," someone else screamed. Many of them took up the chant "Kerry sucks"; old women and teenage boys shouting with equal ferocity.
With four days to go until the election, you can feel the temperature rising in Ohio.
Among Democrats, it's easy to indulge the fantasy that all the rage in this election is directed one way -- at Bush. Thousands of progressives are campaigning here, going door-to-door to get out the vote, training to watch the polls, holding concerts and rallies and anything else they can think of to beat Bush. Hundreds are from other parts of the country but most are locals. Jess Good, Ohio director of the massive get-out-the-vote group America Coming Together, says that 93 percent of the 12,000 volunteers expected to work on Election Day are from Ohio itself.
Clearly, something exciting and unprecedented is happening. After reviewing Democratic and progressive field operations in Ohio and Florida, L.A. Weekly columnist Harold Meyerson wrote, "I have found something I've never before seen in my 36 or so years as a progressive activist and later as a journalist: an effective, fully functioning American left."
Friday's Republican rally, though, was evidence that many on the right are as fervid and galvanized as their opponents. Pollster John Zogby has called this the "apocalypse election" because people on both sides believe the world will end if their candidate loses. He's right -- the Republicans I met at the Ohio rally spoke in language almost identical to that of the most addled Bush-hater, although often several steps further removed from reality.
Dave, a 54-year-old electronic technician, said that if Kerry wins, "I'm going to leave the country and go to a Third World nation and start a ranch." His wife, Jenny, laughed and accused him of hyperbole, but he insisted he's been studying Portuguese, the language of Brazil, "so we'll have an escape route." Sitting near him was Greg Swalley, a blond electrical contractor. "I think Kerry is the anti-Christ," he said, only half-joking. "He scares me."
We were sitting outside the Nationwide Arena watching the adoring crowd on a massive elevated monitor. Swalley and the others had tickets and I had press credentials. But by the time we arrived, 40 minutes before the rally was scheduled to start, security had closed off the area and no more people were being let in. So dozens waited outside and watched their heroes on the screen. The monitor showed a huge W. and then the words, "Let's Roll." When Bush, his wife and Schwarzenegger appeared, wild cheering echoed outside the building.
Inside, Schwarzenegger tried to strike a sunny, moderate note. "There is optimism in Ohio," he said. "There is optimism all over the country because President Bush is leading the way. He's fighting for all of us.
"President Bush knows you can't reason with people that are blinded by hate," Schwarzenegger said. "But let me tell you something: Their hate is no match for our decency, their hate is no match for America's decency, and it is no match for the leadership and the resolve of George W. Bush."
Outside, though, I didn't see much American decency among Bush's followers. The conservative movement has long been fueled by anger and resentment. But here the negativity was at an especially high pitch, perhaps because some were starting to realize they might lose -- and that seemed like the end of the world.
Looking at the small knot of protesters, many of whom were chanting, "Four more days," 22-year-old Nick Karnes, wearing a knit ski cap and baggy jeans, yelled, "Shut up!" Then he turned to his friend and said, "We can take 'em."
"I'm definitely gonna vote for him," Karnes said of Bush. "Because he's been the president for four years and nothing bad has happened since Sept. 11. He's kept me alive for four years." If Kerry becomes president, he said, "We'll be dead within a year."
Karnes told me that most of his friends are voting for Bush, too, but a couple are voting for Kerry. "I'm not speaking to them right now," he said.
When the crowd came pouring out of the arena, the vitriol only increased. One clean-cut man, holding his son by the hand, yelled "coward!" at one of the protesters. I asked him what made him say that, and he said, "Because he's demeaning our troops by saying they are fighting a lost cause."
"Jesus! Jesus!" screamed 26-year-old Joe Robles, pointing to his Bush-Cheney sign. "The man stands for God," he said of the president. "We want somebody who stands for Jesus. I always vote my Christian morals." Robles, a student at Ohio State University, told me that Kerry's daughter is a lesbian. I said I thought that was Dick Cheney's daughter, but he shook his head no with confidence.
Robles said that Kerry would make it illegal for preachers to say that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. In California, he informed me gravely, such preaching has been deemed a hate crime, and pastors who indulge in it are fined $25,000, which "goes to lesbians."
A few of the protesters, meanwhile, were red-faced from yelling at their antagonists about homophobia and budget deficits and a senseless war. Republicans were incensed. A blond woman dragged her young redheaded son toward the protesters, pointed to them, and said, "These are the Democrats," speaking as if she was revealing an awful reality that he was finally old enough to face. As she walked away with a group of other mothers and children, she was so angry she could barely speak. A friend consoled her by promising her that Bush would win. After all, she pointed out, "Look how many more Bush supporters there were on the street!"
That calmed the angry blond woman down a little. But she was still mad. "We," she said, stammering and gesturing contemptuously at the demonstrators, "we are the way it should be!"