Moments before President Bush and Sen. John Kerry stepped onto the world stage at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe for their final debate, a group of young Republicans clashed with protesters voicing their discontent with the administration.
The hostile confrontation occurred about 6:15 p.m. at the end of a protest march organized by the Oct. 13 Alliance, a coalition of divergent political groups ranging from antiwar and anticapitalist demonstrators to gay rights organizations.
Organizers had just called the march a success when a small group of college students waving signs and wearing stickers supporting Bush walked by.
What started as a political debate quickly escalated into a shouting match as supporters of the president started chanting, “You don’t belong here” and “Go home, faggots.”
Demonstrators with the alliance shouted back: “We’re here, we’re queer and we fight back.”
A squadron of 20 police on bicycles monitored the heated exchanges that at times threatened to turn violent as some protesters tore up Bush signs and threw them at the young Bush supporters.
“This is getting way out of hand,” said Aaron Pierce, who supports Bush but did not agree with the derogatory comments made by others.
“This is becoming an election that is not about what’s best for our country but a battle of liberals versus conservatives,” the 18-year-old Arizona State University student said.
The confrontation underscored the divisive and hostile atmosphere on campus during the day.
With polls indicating a tight race coming down to the final three weeks, an equal number of supporters for the president and his challenger were seen on campus.
Some of their debates also nearly turned violent.
Fueled by his strong commitment to the Bush administration, Devin Farmer stood in front of the Memorial Union baiting Kerry supporters.
“Come on,” he said, walking through the crowd, “I dare anyone of you to challenge me.”
“I just want the truth to come out and that’s why I’m so emotional,” he said.
Shortly after making his remarks a group of Kerry supporters started yelling “three more weeks.”
But when a group of Republicans tried to out-shout the Democrats, two men had to be separated by fellow students before they started fighting.
After the debate, the Alliance regrouped and stormed through a barrier in front of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel where Gov. Janet Napolitano attended an exclusive dinner.
Police on horseback and motorcycles quickly descended on the advancing mob before they could enter the hotel. There were no arrests during the incident.
Sue Hildebrand, one of the march organizers, said the event was a victory because no one was arrested and they marched down streets police had indicated were restricted.
“Our goal was to provide a space where all the different voices could be heard,” she said. “And we did that.”
During the day, four people were arrested: Two people were arrested in separate fights, one person was arrested on suspicion of trespassing and one was arrested after he blew through a police barricade on a bicycle and ran into a civilian police officer. The officer broke his leg.
"Given the magnitude of the event, the size of the crowd and the emotions involved, everyone was pretty well-behaved," said Tempe police Sgt. Dan Masters.
Masters said the downtown area was pretty much cleared out by 9:30 p.m.
- Tribune writer Kristina Davis contributed to this report.