Karl Rove, enveloped by a crush of boom mikes and tape recorders, was holding forth about John Kerry's "many contradictions" under a large sign bearing the White House strategist's name.

Eight feet away, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe declared that "as soon as the debate opened up, George Bush lost."

Rove said Kerry had called the war in Iraq a mistake and then denied that American troops were dying for a mistake. McAuliffe called the president "the biggest flip-flopper in the history of American politics" and announced that Kerry's "closing was spectacular."

Rove accused Kerry of "incoherence" on foreign policy. McAuliffe said Bush was "a petty, arrogant, annoyed, bitter man slouching over the podium."

A reporter pushed his way from the McAuliffe mob, squeezed into the Rove scrum and asked: "Were you watching the same debate as Terry McAuliffe?"

"Chairman McAuliffe tends to operate on a different plane of existence than most people," said Rove, still unaware of his rival's close proximity in a packed gymnasium here.

It was hot, crowded, noisy, chaotic and downright dizzying at the University of Miami Thursday night as legions of journalists and armadas of talking-point troupers collided in close quarters. This was spin as contact sport, shoulder-to-shoulder spin, delivered under placards on sticks bearing names such as "Card," "Gillespie," "Albright," "Clark," "Hughes," "Holbrooke" and "George P. Bush."

And there were lesser-known names: "Del Sandusky," Kerry's Vietnam crew mate. "Rand Beers," his national security adviser. And a placard that said "Kristin Breitweiser, 9/11 widow."

The Bush spin team moved out to an early lead even before the debate got underway. Two hours before airtime, campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt -- standing over stacks of purple, green, gold and white paper at a copying machine for color-coded assaults -- was talking about "responding in real time to all of John Kerry's misstatements and factual inaccuracies and flip-flops."

Bush senior adviser Matthew Dowd told reporters for Time and the New York Times that Kerry had to overcome his "likability" problem. "Do you want this person in your living room? . . . Until he solves that, the issue specifics don't matter that much."

The press tables in a vast converted exercise room were soon covered with a Bush-Cheney "Breaking Pre-Debate Fact" -- this one on blue paper -- quoting Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie as making a crack about Kerry's changing lighting preferences two hours earlier on Fox News.

Only when Joe Lockhart strolled through the media center did Team Kerry put a few points on the board. "They're doing 'Fantasy Island' and we're doing reality TV," the former White House spokesman said. "If you listen to them, George Bush is presiding over the most peaceful and prosperous time in a generation."

As for the likability question, Lockhart insisted that the country's situation is so dire that "this is not a personality contest." He then sat down at the laptop of Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren and pretended to write a lead about Kerry's "newfound clarity."

Kerry adviser Tad Devine offered the night's most candid line: "I predict I'll come out and say John Kerry won."

If sheer photocopying ability was the yardstick, the Bush spin patrol dominated the debate. Twenty-five minutes into the session, aides emerged with green sheets labeled "Breaking Debate Fact #1," accusing Kerry of having changed his view of Saddam Hussein. They wound up distributing 10 colorful sheets to a mere two for the Kerry camp, although the senator's side offered a final release showing their candidate winning all the instant network polls.

The second the debate ended, journalists poured into what was labeled Spin Alley. The scene resembled a Middle Eastern bazaar where the most popular merchants draw throngs of shouting customers while those selling bruised vegetables find their stalls deserted.

The Republicans were strikingly on message about Kerry's supposed shortcomings. The debate was "part of a pattern of contradictory statements we've seen throughout the campaign," said Gillespie.

"The public does not trust John Kerry on Iraq or the war on terror," Dowd said. "He did not change that tonight."

Bush's nephew was asked about some of the president's halting responses. "He's very pensive," said George P. Bush. "He understands emotions are very high. . . . No president ever wants to send young Americans into war. He has a heart. He is human."

The Democrats were more exultant in talking up their man. "I think you'll see a surge in the polls as a result of this," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

The audience "saw a strong, resolute John Kerry, and with the president they saw more of the same empty promises," Lockhart said.

Around the gym's perimeter, various cable shows were doing live interviews, adding to the cacophony. Bush adviser Karen Hughes stood on a metal box -- for the right camera angle -- while talking up her boss to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, praising "his passions, his convictions." Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry stood next to her, arms folded, waiting his turn. "What we wanted to do tonight was lay out a very clear alternative to the American people," McCurry said.

But there was a technical glitch and McCurry could not be heard. "We get our time back," he told CNN producer Pat Reap. "Re-book someone from us. I've got to do another thing now. I'll come back."

Next it was John McCain's turn on the box. Chatting with reporters while waiting for his TV hit, the Arizona senator made clear he had only sipped the Republican Kool-Aid. "I don't believe Kerry resolved his contradictions on Iraq," McCain said. "But I do believe he did a good job. He has good debating skills."

A few yards to the right, Hughes was now sitting on an elevated platform with Fox's Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes. A Bush aide sidled up to Fox vice president Bill Shine and offered McCain's services. "We have to put Holbrooke on next to keep it balanced," Shine said, referring to former diplomat and Kerry supporter Richard Holbrooke.

Amid the din, some B- and C-list outlets got to play as well. The normally elusive Rove was staring into a camera along the opposite wall.

"I'm doing a station in Reno," he explained.

To Rove's left, Rudy Giuliani was warning Comedy Central's Jon Stewart about Kerry's vacillations on Iraq. "I think the level of contradiction is pretty frightening," the former mayor said.

Journalists began grousing that their e-mail inboxes were being jammed by scores of messages -- such as "Kerry was best in the Debate!!!" and "Kerry won, hands down" -- from ostensibly real people. A Democratic activist, apparently with the party's support, had urged Kerry supporters: "We should bombard major networks with our opinions; statements like, 'In the debate, I felt I really got to know John Kerry, and I now trust him.' . . . John Kerry needs your help to control the immediate post-debate spin."

Not that the pros needed much help. As the night wore on, both reporters and campaign types began speaking in shorthand.

"What's your spin? What did you think?" Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller asked Kerry communications chief Stephanie Cutter.

"I think it was an incredible night for us," said Cutter, who was losing her voice.

After midnight, as bedraggled journalists started to file out, columnist Roger Simon spotted McAuliffe near the exit.

"The American people won," Simon said in mock spin-speak.

McAuliffe couldn't resist one last shot at Bush. "Arrogant! Aloof!" he shouted with a smile.

Surrounded by media after the first presidential debate, former senator Max Cleland answers questions about John Kerry's service in Vietnam.Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain spoke for Bush in post-debate interviews.