NEW PORT RICHEY
Bruce Diperi, a 38-year-old mechanic from New Port Richey, came because he wanted to learn more. Mary Karnstedt, "a Republican Wal-Mart associate for Obama," came because she hasn't been this worked up in decades. And Curtis Melvin came because he wanted the world to know his message: VOTE MCCAIN NOT HUSSEIN.
Police estimated about 3,200 people gathered at Sims Park and its outskirts Monday evening in anticipation of a visit by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden. About 7:10 p.m., Biden's black tour bus pulled up behind the stage.
While U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson fired up the crowd with a speech of first names — "I can tell you that Barack is as smart as he seems" and "I always learn something from Joe" — Biden stepped off the bus and slipped behind some blue curtains, still unseen.
"If Barack and Joe win Florida," Nelson said, "so goes the nation."
Biden then took the stage and gave a nod to local officials in his opening remarks.
He thanked New Port Richey Mayor Scott McPherson, local Democratic committee chairwoman Alison Morano and County Commissioner Michael Cox.
"Mike, I used to have that job before this job," Biden said. "I left the county commission and ran for the Senate because your job is too hard."
Biden's appearance marked the first Pasco visit by a major Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter came three decades ago. The event was at the same park where President Bush rallied supporters four years ago on the way to winning Pasco County, Florida's electoral votes and his second term.
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On a windy evening that caused McPherson to take three copies of his own speech in case the original blew away, everybody had his own reason for standing in line.
"I wanted to get a chance and hear what both sides said," said Diperi, a 38-year-old mechanic from New Port Richey. "I've been listening to it all. … Before I make my decision, I want to make sure it's the right one. I hear the word change, change, change. We'll see."
Party volunteers, armed with brochures, tried to take advantage of a captive audience. "Did you know 750,000 people lost their jobs last year?" one asked.
Karnstedt held her homemade sign in front of her chest as she inched through the line.
Written on a manila folder, it said "I'm a Republican Wal-Mart associate for Obama."
Karnstedt, 60, who lives in the Moon Lake area of New Port Richey, said she heard at work about Wal-Mart management telling employees about the "consequences of having a Democratic president," and she sprang into action.
"I haven't been this worked up about an election since Kennedy," she said. She was 15 at the time.
Jessica Demick, a 20-year-old first-time voter and pharmacy technician at Target, said the tax plan of Democratic nominee Barack Obama would help her, a single mother, much more than that of Republican nominee John McCain, which she described as "tax breaks for CEOs."
"I seriously don't know what I'd do if he won," she said of McCain, as she pushed her stroller forward in line. "It would be a tragedy if he wins."
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Protesting over on Main Street, Derisa Tuttle, 30, of New Port Richey, said the real tragedy would be an Obama presidency.
"I don't want my six kids to grow up in a world of socialism," said Tuttle, waving a sign that said ANOTHER DEMOCRAT FOR MCCAIN. "If Obama gets elected, our whole life as we know it changes."
Pasco County Republican Chairman Bill Bunting wore a navy T-shirt with a picture of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin shooting a gun.
The slogan: Bring It On.
"This is a shirt that represents America," he said.
Curtis Melvin, 17, New Port Richey, held a sign that said VOTE MCCAIN NOT HUSSEIN, a reference to Obama's middle name, and yelled at cars going by: "Vote McCain. Say no to socialism! Keep America American!"
He was drinking PowerAde and his voice was still going hoarse.
A black Chevy Silverado pickup drove by and slowed, and the window came down a crack on the passenger side, and a boy's face stuck out long enough for him to say, real calmly, to the McCain sign-holders: "Obama, Obama, Obama."
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New Port Richey police Lt. Jeffrey Harrington said setup Monday had gone well with no hiccups or security scares.
Perhaps the most common problem at the security checkpoint: no outside signs allowed in.
"Awww!!" said Rebekah Kader, a 20-year-old student at Pasco-Hernando Community College and a manager at Dunkin' Donuts, who came with a cardboard sign declaring a McCain presidency would be a third term for Bush.
Inside a gated area, media and security officers were treated to the smell of Cuban sandwiches, rice and empanadas placed on a table. To anyone who dines in New Port Richey, the fare was obviously courtesy of Juan's Black Bean Cafe, a popular Cuban restaurant on Main Street. Another clue: One of Juan's head waiters was arranging the food on the table.
But there was no sign for the restaurant, and the waiter was not eager to say where the food had come from. Why? The owner of Juan's is Juan DeSosa, a proud Republican.
After his speech ended, Biden remained on stage, shaking supporters' hands. The wind was blowing. Moss in the live oaks was swaying. "I'll Take You There" blared over the speakers.
"We want Joe! We want Joe!" the crowd yelled as he finally walked away.