NEW YORK, Nov. 1, 2004 -- -- Behind the scenes of one of the most contentious presidential races in recent memory, both Democrats and Republicans have organized what can only be called the T-shirt defense squads.
It is an all-out effort to spot T-shirts supporting the other candidate and block them from view, or in some cases to actually have the T-shirt-wearing offenders ejected or arrested.
ABC News conducted a bipartisan experiment in which producers and volunteers went to rallies for each candidate wearing the other party's T-shirt, and found that each campaign had its own methods of preventing the shirts from being seen.
"We've reached a sad state of affairs when a T-shirt is that offensive," said Yale professor Robert Post, a specialist in First Amendment law. "It tells me that these are photo opportunities, and not about dialogue."
Both Campaigns Take the Offensive
The rules were to behave exactly the same at each rally, to be polite participants and to leave when asked. The ABC News team obtained tickets for all of the events attended -- tickets for Kerry events can be attained from the official campaign Web site and tickets for Bush events from local Republican party or campaign offices.
At an Oct. 21 Kerry rally in Minneapolis, ABC news producers were surrounded and followed by a team of dancing Kerry campaign workers with large signs, effectively obstructing the Bush-Cheney T-shirts from the view of the national press.
"My job tonight was to run interference so that we didn't have any negative situation on our hands," said a female Kerry campaign volunteer. "Our job was to stand in front of them and make sure that, number one, that press had access to Kerry stuff and not necessarily Bush."
The Bush campaign was even more aggressive in its response to the opposing party's T-shirts.
When ABC News volunteers Matt Walter and Sherrie Varpula tried to attend an Oct. 23 Bush rally at Space Coast Stadium in Melbourne, Fla., they were told by event volunteers the Kerry-Edwards T-shirts they were wearing would cause them not to be admitted.
"I'm sorry, but they're Kerry shirts," a female Bush volunteer said. "We were told not to let people with Kerry shirts into the rally."
And as they approached the gates of the stadium, Lance "Chip" Borman, a Bush campaign worker and attorney who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, directed them toward the Brevard County sheriff's deputies waiting at the exit.
"Hey folks, it's a private event," he said. "Can you find your way to the nearest exit? Maybe some law enforcement can help?"
'Low Point' in Public Discourse
A second team of ABC News producers waited until entering Space Coast stadium before showing its Kerry-Edwards T-shirts, but was still quickly spotted and ordered out by Borman, who identified himself as working for the Republican National Committee.
He said the rally of some 18,000 people was a "private event," and it made no difference that producers Christine Romo and Jessica Wang had tickets and remained silent and respectful.
"But you wore the shirts; you wore the shirts," Borman said. "And honestly, if you would have come without the shirts and sat quietly, you would have had a fun time and enjoyed it, but I mean it's not that kind of event." He then instructed the sheriff's deputies to escort the ABC News team out to the parking lot.
This was hardly the first time those wearing dissenting T-shirts have been forced to leave a Bush campaign event.
Jeff Rank and his wife, Nicole, were arrested July 4 at a Bush rally in Charleston, W.Va., for wearing shirts that read "Love America, Hate Bush" and refusing to relocate to an area for protesters. Earlier this month, at a Bush event in Cedar Point, Ore., Janet Voorhies and two friends were ejected for wearing T-shirts with "Protect Our Civil Liberties" printed on them.
"I think this represents a low point in public discourse in this country, where the mere sign of disagreement is intolerable to candidates," Post said. "That can't be right. That can't be American."
A Kerry staffer at an Oct. 24 Kerry rally in Boca Raton, Fla., told Bush-Cheney T-shirt wearers that the campaign held a permit to rent the site and could remove anyone who made a disturbance.
"We hold the right to remove you, but other than that, enjoy and hopefully at the end of the event you'll want to wear a Kerry T-shirt," he said.
The Irrelevant First Amendment
One thing the rallies had in common were the taunting remarks the opposition's T-shirts drew.
"We're not allowed in your party, because your party's exclusive and stupid," said one Kerry supporter at the Minneapolis rally.
A Bush volunteer said at the Melbourne event, "You guys know you have to love America to stand in this line, not France. Just letting you know. I don't want you guys to get beat up in there by Americans."
Post said that First Amendment laws most likely did not apply to these rallies, as the ticketed campaign events in private venues would be seen legally as private affairs.
"But what does apply are the basic morals of politics," he said. "And the morals of politics are, we talk to the people whom we want to convince. That's how we get votes. We convince people to vote for us, and we give them reasons when they disagree."
And at Kerry's Boca Raton rally, one of the faithful Democrats could be seen calming a woman upset at the sight of the Bush-Cheney T-shirts.
"Feel proud that we let them in," he said. "That's what democracy is all about, that's what we're fighting for."
ABC News' Vic Walter, Jessica Wang, Christine Romo contributed to this report.