NEW YORK – The most divisive issue of the 2004 presidential election got a boisterous public airing Sunday as more than 100,000 marchers streamed through midtown Manhattan in one of the nation’s largest protests against the Iraq war and President Bush.

Coming on the eve of the Republican National Convention, the hours-long procession served as more than just another street protest. Passionate but largely peaceful, the march set the tone of dissent as the rest of the nation watches the images coming out of New York.

While it included a stew of different causes, from health care to gay rights, the overarching message was crystallized in the sign of one marcher. “Good troops,” it read. “Bad leader. Wrong war.”

Five hours after the carnival-like march started, it wound down to a somber coda in Union Square: Protesters carried 972 flag-draped, cardboard coffins in honor of the American troops who have died in Iraq.

“The Bush administration has not allowed us to see the coffins as they come home,” said Meryl Alster, a psychotherapist in Manhattan who walked with a coffin over her head for several hours. “We must honor them and not forget.”

Against a backdrop of security fears and promises of civil disobedience, many activists had feared the march would result in scenes of demonstrators clashing with police-undermining their critique of Bush and giving his re-election campaign ammunition.

In the end, those scenes were rare – almost as rare as any posters or chants advocating for Bush’s opponent, Democratic nominee John Kerry.

By evening, police had made more than 200 arrests, including 15 people who hurled street barriers into police lines along the march route, according to the NYPD. At least two officers received minor injuries: One was struck above the left eye with a projectile and another burned his hand while arresting a protester who ignited a papier-mache dragon in front of Madison Square Garden.

Police also confiscated 100 bicycles, many in Times Square, well away from the march. The New York Civil Liberties Union called the Times Square arrests excessive, contending the police arrested people who were lawfully on the sidewalks and that many were members of the media or legal observers.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said clashes involving the march earlier in the day were limited, particularly given its size, estimated at more than 100,000 by The Associated Press. March organizers put the number at 400,000.

The day of protest was so subdued, in fact, that some demonstrators even seemed a bit disappointed. As Heather Barr, 33, an attorney from Manhattan, described it: “Orderly. A little too orderly.”

That was just fine, though, with many of the marchers, who were eager not to give Bush any re-election boost.

“The Republicans wanted a repeat of Chicago in 1968, which was helpful to them,” said Evan Giller, a New York lawyer who was one of the last demonstrators to arrive at the end of the route late Sunday afternoon.

Even those who made their way to an informal rally at Central Park – a bit of muted defiance given that the city had denied them a permit to use the park’s Great Lawn – were intent on keeping things from getting out of hand.

“They’ll say it’s the lunatic fringe,” said Eve Fischer, 38, a “full-time mother” and artist from Yonkers, N.Y. “But we’re not. We’re just regular people. Your grandmothers are here, too.”

The post-march turnout on the Great Lawn was so tame that a Pac-10 alumni league was able to continue its softball game.

With a few hundred police officers stationed throughout the park, an estimated 1,000 demonstrators occupied the meadow, shouting anti-Bush chants and dancing to a drumbeat. An equal number of fatigued protesters could be seen lying in the shade on the perimeter of the lawn.

While Sunday’s demonstrations were relatively quiet, the city remains prepared for trouble. Metropolitan Transit Authority buses line many midtown streets – in case of mass detentions.

“If they make arrests, we’re going to escort them to the nearest precinct,” said Darral Irick, an MTA bus driver who was stationed near Sunday’s march route. “It’s more like a peace demonstration, from what I hear on the radio. But when you get crowds and crowds of people, anything can happen.”

The show of force by authorities included New York Army National Guard units. That meant Spec. Marcus Isaac of Queens and Pfc. John Able were watching over antiwar marchers while some of their buddies are fighting in Iraq.

“I’m going to serve and protect each and every one of them, whether they’re wrong or right,” Able said.

Numerous counter-protesters lined the march route, but the pair that made perhaps the strongest impression were Jeremiah Baldwin, a retired police officer from Long Beach, Calif., and Ruben Israel, a construction company owner in Los Angeles.

“In God and Pres Bush We Can Trust,” read Baldwin’s sign. Next to it was Israel’s: “Peace and Freedom Has Never Been Cheap.”

Each new cluster of demonstrators couldn’t resist stopping and exchanging insults with the two men.

“What would Jesus bomb!?” some yelled.

Baldwin’s retort: “Stop being a rebel against God and America, and support a great president.”

A couple blocks farther down 34th Street, JoJo Lagerstrom and her friend from Detroit, Irene Lewis, had scheduled a New York theater trip to coincide with the Republican convention. They had hoped to join in the march, but couldn’t get past the barricades.

So they stood in quiet support on the sidewalk. “Lovely parade, isn’t it?” said Lagerstrom, an accountant for General Motors. “I haven’t been part of a protest since the ‘60s, so I wanted to be a part of the next really important one, which is this. This administration is disgusting.”

“Four more years (of Bush) would be treacherous,” Lewis chimed in.

Lagerstrom noted that they were headed to see Hugh Jackman in “The Boy from Oz,” the musical biography of songwriter and entertainer Peter Allen, who was once married to Liza Minnelli and later died of AIDS.

“He was gay, so we’re safe in that theater,” Lagerstrom said with a grin, assuming an absence of Republican delegates at the show. “I’m sure they all went to Disney.”

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