President Bush was about to arrive at a rally. A couple wearing T-shirts with anti-Bush slogans were sitting just feet from the stage. Charleston, W. Va., police working with the US Secret Service had a quick decision to make.
What ensued that July 4 was either a prudent choice in high-risk times or a blatant violation of free-speech rights. Police arrested the two for wearing the T-shirts and refusing to relocate to an area for protesters. The arrests of Jeff and Nicole Rank, along with the suit they filed earlier this month against the Secret Service, have become symbols of a defining feature of campaign 2004: security so tight that candidates seldom hear or see their critics in person.
From cordoning off protest zones at the Democratic National Convention to swiftly removing hecklers from several Republican rallies since then, police working closely with the Secret Service have guaranteed that most campaign stops this year have become supporters-only precincts.
The harmony displayed under bright lights for the cameras, however, masks a reality of such great tension in the nation that disturbance-wary police are segregating protesters more than ever, according to longtime campaign watchers. In this, some see a necessary adjustment to the times, while others fear for the future of civic discourse.
"I believe what you're seeing [this year] is almost always a product of 9/11 and worry over terrorism," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus who got his start in politics writing speeches for President Eisenhower. Though he finds today's measures distasteful, the political climate leaves few options, he says. "The president of the United States is likely to get killed, and we have to take precautions."
To the American Civil Liberties Union, however, attempts to insulate a candidate from potential critics amount to an abuse of security safeguards for political advantage. Both parties are guilty, although the Bush administration has used the technique more thoroughly and frequently, says Chris Hansen, an ACLU attorney and the Ranks' lawyer. "It does seem to be a post-9/11 problem. It's a pattern of using security as an excuse to repress dissent. [But] what that argument boils down to is, 'Dissent is dangerous and will inevitably lead to physical attacks.' We shouldn't assume that, and it is wrong to assume that."
Both sides agree that shouting down a speaker is intolerable conduct at a rally. Those who persist in doing so - such as during a Laura Bush speech this month in New Jersey or at a Kerry rally this summer in Flagstaff, Ariz. - get removed and sometimes charged with minor offenses.
But the Ranks' case highlights the new and controversial practice of keeping even silent protesters far away from candidates. The Charleston City Council apologized for the July 4 incident, since the Ranks had tickets, were on public property, and made no obstructive noise.
Still, the practice of segregating dissenters has become common. Police at Mr. Bush's public events have been sending protesters to distant "free-speech zones" since 2001, says journalist Jim Bovard, author of "The Bush Betrayal." Protesters who try to stick with supporters have been arrested, as happened to protester Brett Bursey when he held a sign, "No War for Oil," at a 2002 presidential visit to Columbia, S.C. At the Republican National Convention, New York City police arrested some 1,800 protesters, including bystanders who got caught in massive sweeps.
At Bush campaign stops, attendees sometimes must sign a loyalty pledge, and staffers screen those who would ask the president questions. The Bush-Cheney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
"There does seem to be a different attitude toward dissent" than in prior administrations, says Mr. Bovard, a libertarian. "Now it's as if the president has to be sheltered from anyone who disagrees with him. That's a dangerous principle."
What's happening, historians say, is a response to some of the most impassioned protests since the Vietnam era. Political parties, Secret Service agents, and local authorities now cooperate to head off potentially violent situations - often by keeping ideological foes apart.
"People learned from the '60s how not to handle demonstrations," that is, with dogs and firehoses, says Ralph Young, professor of American history at Temple University and author of "Dissent in America." "They've learned how to use restraint and still be very effective."
Dissent hasn't always been quarantined. Dissenters and hecklers have hounded campaign events since stumping first became the norm in 1908, says Paul Boller, professor emeritus of history at Texas Christian University and author of "Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush." Certain candidates used the opposition to their advantage, he adds. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt won over a booing Georgia crowd by jumping on a table and giving a rousing self-defense.
Today's situation, campaign watchers say, raises echoes of 1968, when wartime tensions ran high and the Kennedy assassination lingered in memory. At a Spiro Agnew rally, a rooftop heckler began to shout and was whisked away in seconds, Mr. Hess recalls. "There was a threatening feeling to it. Somebody was against a controversial candidate, and he was very angry."
Kerry's organization says it doesn't use loyalty oaths or screen those wanting event tickets. "It just tends to be that the person who takes them is someone who already supports or wants to learn more about John Kerry," says a Massachusetts campaign spokeswoman. If critics speak, "that political discourse is an important part of this campaign."
Not everyone is convinced. Hansen of the ACLU points to Kerry's occasional "front porch" visits. "I don't believe those 14 people on the porch and the front lawn just happen to be the first 14 people who got there," he says. But campaign security in a post-9/11 era has come at a price. Perhaps gone forever are the days when a candidate like Harry Truman, or even Bill Clinton, could roll into town on a train and talk to everyone gathered around.