A photograph that flew around the Internet this week shows a boxy bulge in the back of President Bush's suit coat during the first debate, leading to widespread cyber-speculation that he was wired to receive help with his answers.
Bush's aides tried to laugh off the controversy, with one official joking about "little green men on the grassy knoll."
Several officials, pressed for a serious answer, flatly denied that anything was fishy about the hump. These officials said they had checked and that there was nothing under Bush's jacket -- not a wire, not a transmitter, not a garage door opener. Bush was not wearing a protective vest, sources said.
The White House refused to provide an on-the-record comment, saying that it would dignify a baseless issue, and referred questions to the Bush-Cheney campaign.
"It is preposterous," campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. He declined to elaborate or to suggest what could have produced the unusual photo.
Bush's aides said the suit was well-tailored and did not have a roll in back. One official, in a cheeky reference to a discredited story about Bush's National Guard record, suggested checking with document experts at CBS News to see if the photo had been doctored.
The subject helped fill the lull before last night's second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe pointed to Bush's shaky, repetitive performance in the first debate. "If he had an earpiece and those were his answers, they ought to fire every person in the back room," he said.
Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel, during a Web chat on washingtonpost.com, was asked if Bush wore "any kind of electronic device on his back during the first debate that allowed him to receive information."
"Senator Kerry? Is that you?," Stanzel typed back. "I think you've been spending a little too much time on conspiracy Web sites. Did you hear the one about Elvis moderating tonight's debate?"
A photo on the Web this week also raised questions about Kerry, showing him taking something out of his pocket when he reached the lectern at the first debate. Aides said it was a pen; debate rules said the pens were supposed to be in place. Aides said removing it from his pocket was a nervous habit.
Journalists had been passing around the link to the photo all week, and yesterday Salon.com posted an article about the photo that began, "Was President Bush literally channeling Karl Rove in his first debate with John Kerry?"
One Web site, www.isbushwired.com, has opened with the sole mission of serving as "a clearinghouse for discussion of whether President Bush uses an earpiece through which he's fed lines and cues by offstage advisers."