On one side of the street stand two students dressed in body-length yellow foam sandals with the words “flip” and “flop” written on them. They are joined by a handful of protesters holding pro-Bush signs. On the other side of the street, thousands of Sen. John Kerry supporters pour into the Sun Dome wearing shirts that read “Proud Donkey” and “Kerry-Edwards.” Such was the scene on Friday when Kerry made a visit to USF. The USF community was the first to see him after a successful debate Thursday night against President Bush.
“The debate invigorated my support,” said Andy Harris, a registered Democrat who took an early lunch to make it to the rally.
Most of the 9,000 people present wore comfortable and casual attire like campaign T-shirts and hats. Not even the lines that wrapped around the parking lot kept anyone from waiting patiently to see the senator. People started streaming in around 9:30 am.
“I’ll just take a long lunch,” said Jeff Blake, a Kerry supporter who works about 15 minutes from campus. “It’s too important to be here and see this,” he said.
Patience was wearing thin by the front of the line at Entry 4. Supporters were taunting the outnumbered protesters. One man held up a sign that read “Vietnam? Kerry Fought, Bush Hid, End of Story.”
Matt Strenth, president of USF’s College Republicans, said most of Kerry’s supporters only support him because they hate Bush.
“I want to ask them why they want to vote for Kerry, because they can never answer me directly when I ask,” Strenth said.
The thousands of people going inside were greeted by hundreds of Secret Service Agents, Hillsborough County Sheriff and Tampa Police Department personnel. No bag went unchecked and cell phones were turned on for inspection at the security checkpoints.
Once inside, the Chris McCarty Band and guitar soloist Ben Kweller entertained and set an upbeat ambiance that was further heightened by former student body President Omar Khan’s preview speech. Khan pumped up the audience like an NFL football coach on the verge of victory. He gave statistics about college-age voters, added a little humor and asked the crowd to chant Kerry’s name.
“This election may be the most important election of our lives,” Khan said.
“Our generation will live longer than other generations. No offense to those of us over the age of 50, but we have to live with the consequences longer,” Khan said, in reference to Bush’s social and environmental policies.
When he was finished people roared, “Kerry, Kerry, Kerry.”
Congressman Jim Davis, Hillsborough County Commissioner Bob Buckhorn and Senator Bob Graham were among the politicians present at the event.
The anticipated moment came around
1:10 p.m. when Kerry took the stage, about an hour after the originally scheduled time, but not before an unexpected appearance by Betty Castor, the Democratic representative running for Florida Senate.
“Let’s hear it for Betty Castor,” Khan said as the anxious crowd cheered.
The mass of people erupted and waved signs in the air when Kerry stepped onstage. He could not be heard for the first minute because of the noise.
Kerry graciously accepted compliments from Congressman Jim Davis and returned one by asking the crowd to give Davis a hand for his work in the district.
People listened and applauded the Senator for about 25 minutes. Debate week in Florida ended Friday, but as the election nears, supporters from both sides will likely continue supporting their candidate with the passion displayed at USF on Friday.