NEW YORK — Under a blazing sun, Eric Anderson paced near ground zero, holding a large sign telling Republicans to get out of New York.
At first, he kept a respectful distance from convention delegates visiting the site, staying on a sidewalk across the street. But as more protesters with placards gradually filled the area, he shrugged and decided to join the fray.
"I didn't want to sully this place with a protest," the computer analyst from Washington said, crossing the street. "But everybody else is doing it, so why not me?"
Many Americans believe that the site of the Sept. 11 attacks is a sacred place -- like Pearl Harbor -- that should be free from partisan strife. Organizers of the Republican National Convention have said that President Bush would steer clear of the area so as not to give the appearance of politicizing ground zero.
Yet the passions stirred by the GOP gathering and the approaching third anniversary of the attacks have disrupted the quiet that used to pervade the former World Trade Center, which is now a dusty construction site. Increasingly, ground zero has become a zone where political debate and confrontations are common.
In recent days, the sidewalks surrounding the 16-acre spot in Lower Manhattan have attracted antiwar activists with signs and literature attacking the war in Iraq. Droves of Republican delegates have visited the area, affirming their belief that Bush's war on terrorism has kept America on the right track.
This week, the first large political demonstration at ground zero turned into mass confusion, with police arresting more than 270 antiwar protesters. Street theater artists also have begun appearing at the site, calling attention to abortion rights, stem cell research and civil liberties -- as well as the fight against terrorism.
Some here said the change was inevitable, while others viewed it with alarm.
"I don't think anybody should be talking about politics here or saying somebody's right or somebody's wrong," said Deirdre Petraivolo, a Hamden, Conn., resident touring the site. She looked askance at war protesters -- but also criticized Republicans for including three Sept. 11 widows in the convention program earlier this week.
"I feel a great sense of personal loss here," she said. "When I look at this big hole in the ground, all I think is that so many people died here for no reason."
The World Trade Center site has become a national Rorschach test, where people look at the same real estate and see different things.
"I can't get over how tragic this area is," said Frank Eggering, an alternate Republican delegate from Missouri. "And now that I've finally seen it, I say, 'We've got a good, strong president to fight terrorism, and our party has the right answers.' "
Moments before he spoke, a protester strolled by, carrying a sign that criticized the GOP for politicizing the attacks. Larry Nadarse, a New Yorker, looked as if he enjoyed the anger he produced in GOP delegates' eyes.
"This place is full of emotion, and I think of a terrible war in Iraq that should never have been fought," he said. "Republicans shouldn't be trying to capitalize on this place by injecting politics," said the activist, who wore a Kerry-Edwards T-shirt.
As he spoke, vendors sold buttons for various causes. Signs in office windows overlooking the site read: "No War," "No More Lies" and "Dissent is Patriotic."
The crowds swelled, and the mood on Church Street grew testy.
"George Bush and the CIA attacked America on 9/11!" shouted one woman, handing out literature to a man passing by. "Shut up!" he replied. "You're crazy!"
Minutes later, a small van pulled up and several Republican delegates from Ohio clambered out for a look at ground zero. Terrence O'Donnell, a member of the state's Supreme Court, was misty-eyed as he gazed into the pit, then grew resolute.
"The lesson I'll be taking away is that we're not the cowards. They [terrorists] are the cowards," he said. "We didn't set out to conquer the world. This was all imposed on us as a nation, and it's important that we come together and fight this war."
Several feet away, Mike Levinson agreed there's a war to be fought, but not the war O'Donnell was talking about. He adjusted a head bandage soaked in fake blood, preparing for a "die in" at Madison Square Garden, site of the convention.
"Look at this place," he said. "It's a reminder that we have to fight to end all war. There was great suffering here; there's great suffering among the Iraqi people."
An hour later, police arrested Levinson and others planning a march to the convention, saying they had blocked the sidewalk. There were shouts of protest, cries from people in paddy wagons and police demands that marchers clear the area.
"On any day, you could stand here and take the temperature of the country," said Ruth Wangerin, an activist holding a peace vigil at the site. "There are people who say no more violence. There are people who think of revenge. It's a lot noisier now."
As people came and went, Philip Belfassio sat on the sidewalk and played "Amazing Grace" on his flute for hours, without interruption.
The song speaks of forgiveness and the ability of human beings to rise above their worst sins, the musician said. And it has special meaning with the convention in town, he said.
"If we communicate instead of denigrate," he said, "we'll be on the right track."