Presidential hand puppets duke it out in Times Square

— The felt flew during a rain-drenched Times Square debate between President Bush and Democratic contender John Kerry -- in puppet form -- on the afternoon before the real deal in Florida.

Thanks to "Avenue Q" producers and cast members, the naughty puppet citizens of the Tony-winning Broadway musical launched edgy questions about such edgy issues as unemployment, gay marriage and military service during Thursday's "Avenue Q & A."


Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

Jennifer Barnhart, left, works a Sen. John Kerry puppet, center, in a mock debate with a President Bush puppet, right, as the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Avenue Q" made fun of the presidential debates in New York. The show's creators turned Bush and Kerry into political puppets for a felt-filled debate Thursday in Times Square, prior to the real thing at the University of Miami.

It was a one-time-only comedic event that warned: "Any similarity between puppets and actual presidential candidates is purely coincidental."

The Bush and Kerry puppets stood with their human handlers behind official-looking lecterns and addressed an assembly of soaked tourists and soggy musical theater lovers.

Red, white and blue balloon bunches continually conked debate-goers in the head amid the wet and windy deluge. But the weather didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirit. Visitors laughed and cheered during three musical numbers -- one quasi-original and two songs from the saucy musical that were rewritten with political lyrics especially for the event.

"Tear It Up and Throw It Away," a jury-summons-shredding anthem in the musical, became a tale about Bush (performed by Rick Lyon, who also designed the puppets) slashing his draft card. "If You Were Gay" was the same-sex marriage retort by Kerry (played by the deep-toned Jennifer Barnhart).

Sample lyric: "You should feel free to tell the GOP that instead of Laura Bush you want some young guy's tush." The entire company ended a cappella with "Vote Your Heart," which was the production's Tony campaign slogan earlier this year.

The face-off was moderated by closeted Republican puppet Rod, an actual character from "Avenue Q," played by John Tartaglia.

"It kind of refreshed me," the blue-skinned Rod told The Associated Press about the downpour. "When I would get frustrated with an answer, it would just pour over me. It was like a sign to just relax."

While Rod went umbrellaless, both Bush and Kerry had human Secret Service agents -- complete with shades and ear pieces -- shielding them from the elements. But nothing could protect the nominees from punchy partisan jabs.

"Military service in Vietnam was every young man's civic duty!" exclaimed Kerry.

"Who gives a doody?" replied Bush.

Like the weather, the reasons for an "Avenue Q" puppet debate -- other than pure publicity stunt -- were cloudy.

"I wanted to hear the truth," Rod said. "I thought we as the people and puppets of America needed that."

"Avenue Q" human producer Kevin McCollum agreed. "We thought 'Avenue Q' was a great cross-section of America and would be a great place to have a debate," he said.

McCollum also thought the rain was apropos.

"I think we've had a country where we've had a reigning king for a long time," he said, post-rally. "The rain is great because we're all survivors on 'Avenue Q,' and we're all trying to make a difference. It's good that nature still works."


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