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September 2, 2004 -- WHILE the GOP's faithful were gathering at the Garden, a bunch of young Republican delegates visited a neighborhood not on their itinerary - the ultra-liberal Lower East Side.
In their clean-cut clothes and big red badges, they were like exotic animals to the local scenesters, who eyeballed them with a mix of confusion and fascination.
The young Republicans suffered some insults, but they also smoked illegally, ran up $400 in drinks - and made some unlikely friends.
"I haven't met one mean or inhospitable New Yorker!" exclaimed 19-year-old Florida delegate Casey Hampton, upon arriving on Ludlow Street Monday night.
It only took a few hours for that to change.
10 P.M.: MAX FISH
This low-key bar on Ludlow Street has pinball machines in front, a pool table in the back and a slew of anti-Bush, anti-GOP posters stuck to the walls.
A "Republicans: Go F--- Yourself" bumper sticker is slapped on the bathroom door.
Fresh-scrubbed Eric Omdahl, 21, and burly Casey Phillips, 23, - both alternates from South Dakota - are not impressed.
"I would be ashamed for my grandmother to come in here and see this," says Omdahl, who is scandalized by a sketch of a naked George Bush, "or even my mom! Not that they would have any reason to come in here."
Omdahl has already had two margaritas, a vodka sour, a White Russian and a mud slide. At Max Fish, he orders a margarita with rocks and salt.
"For a while, my dad thought I was a Democrat," says Omdahl, who blends in a bit more than Phillips, an ex-bull rider who usually carries a .44 in his boot and works on his family's cattle ranch.
Phillips, a barrel-chested bear with a huge brass belt buckle, is shocked by drink prices.
"In South Dakota, you can get a beer for $1," he says. "But I always drink whiskey."
Never mind the smoking ban. "In South Dakota, you walk into a bar, and it's just fog," he says.
A random Lower East Sider literally stops in his tracks and stares at Omdahl and Phillips like they're zoo animals.
"I'm just fascinated," he says. "I'm surprised to see them in here."
11 P.M.: PIANOS
"Let's do flaming sambuca shots!" Omdahl howls upon entering this spot down the street from Max Fish. "It'll get you totally wasted!"
Downstairs, the bar is largely empty, making Hampton's arrival - he shows up in belted khaki pants, a dark blue dress shirt and red tie - more conspicuous.
"I just met Jack Kemp!" says a fired-up Hampton, removing the big red "delegate" badge hanging from his neck.
"I sat right behind George Bush No. 1! Guiliani gave one of the best speeches I have ever seen!"
Omdahl wanders away in search of Phillips, who's in the back room listening to an Icelandic synth pop band.
He lets out a "YEE-HAW!!!!"
It's met with silence. "I guess no one really says 'yee-haw!' here," he whispers, before heading upstairs to find some girls.
He finds one - a cute blonde whose T-shirt reads, "I'm not down with the GOP!"
She is, however, clearly down with Phillips, and gives him her phone number - even though she's here with her boyfriend.
Back downstairs, 25-year-old Catherine Brinkman - the chair of the California Young Republicans - has just arrived with three friends. She's a little distraught.
"If I had known we were coming to a place like this," she says, "I wouldn't have worn my blazer!"
Outside, rancher Phillips and the crowd are about to head to the next spot. Just then, the girl in the anti-GOP shirt hurriedly catches up with him.
"There you are!" she exclaims. "I thought you left! Where are you going next? Can I come with you?"
1 A.M.: EAST VILLAGE DIVE BAR
This bar tends to ignore the smoking ban, and upon arrival, half of the Young Republicans light up.
Phillips has somehow lost the anti-GOP girl, but a tall brunette chats him up.
Catherine orders another Cosmo. She and her friend Diana, a 24-year-old delegate from San Francisco, are exceedingly well-groomed, with perfectly blow-dried straight hair and generous makeup. They look like preppy young professionals who work in Midtown and live on the Upper East Side.
"Sex and the City" is their reference point for New York.
"My dream guy is probably Aidan," Diana says. "Good-looking, but not so clean-cut."
How about the guys here?
"Uh, they have character," she says, straining to be diplomatic.
In the back room, an East Villager starts yelling.
"Get out of my city!" he shouts. "I don't want this bar associated with Republicans!"
Omdahl tries to calm him down: "We don't want any trouble," he says. "We're just trying to have a drink."
The scenester tells the Young Republicans to name what song the deejay is playing. "Uh, '80s new wave?" one guesses.
"It's New Order!" the agitated bar-goer rants. "Now go back to f---ing San Francisco."
At around 3 a.m., the conservatives stumble into cabs, smelling of booze and cigarettes, with only a vague idea of how to get back to their hotels.
Less than 24 hours later, our group had lost two wallets, three cell phones and one camera, all left in cabs. And Hampton - the one who had yet to meet a "mean New Yorker" - had been attacked by a protester who ripped off his George W. button and his delegate badge.
Two days later, Phillips had not ventured back downtown but attended parties and events in Midtown, where "people are dressed much nicer," he says.
Omdahl can't wait to get back to the Lower East Side.
"I'm not gonna lie. I was a little drunk," he says. He lost his wallet, but his dad wired him $600. "And there were some good-looking girls at that last bar."
He just wishes everyone were so welcoming. "A lot of the Republicans - we don't start fires, we don't spit on people,"he says. "We're just in chill mode."
- Additional reporting by Mary Huhn