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Scott Van Duzer, Obama Hugger, Joins Campaign Trail And Gets VIP Treatment at Debate, Rally

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SCOTT VAN DUZER
Reunited, and it feels so good: Scott Van Duzer and Obama embrace at a rally on Oct. 23 in Delray Beach, Fla. Van Duzer was also at the presidential debate Monday. | AP

Scott Van Duzer, the owner of Fort Pierce, Fla.-based Big Apple Pizza and otherwise known as the Obama hugger, struck again this week.

This time, he not only hugged the president, but also fist-bumped the first lady.

The Obama campaign invited Van Duzer to attend the debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday but didn't inform him until right before he left his home that he'd be seated next to Michelle Obama. Van Duzer said she initiated the hug when they met, then spent 10 to 15 minutes talking about his foundation promoting blood donations, their families and the initial presidential bear hug in mid-September that became a viral moment in the campaign.

"It was a heartwarming conversation," Van Duzer told The Huffington Post. "Words really can't explain when you meet someone and have an instant connection, but I felt that bond with [Obama] -- he was that warm, and his wife was the same way."

Van Duzer said the conversation was alternately emotional and humorous, with the first lady grabbing his hand in compassion when he explained how he had endured death threats after hugging the president, and fist-bumping him when he made a "funny comment she got a kick out of."

"Yes, she's the first lady and he's the president, but they're people, too, and have feelings just like you and me," he said. "She was classy, a great woman."

Of the debate itself, Van Duzer confessed to being a bit more awestruck than attentive at points. "There was so much going on -- it's a totally different experience than when you're watching it on TV," he said. Still, Van Duzer said he believes Obama "got the upper hand and was a clear-cut choice."

On Tuesday, Van Duzer introduced Obama to a crowd of 11,000 people at a rally where he hugged not only Obama, but also about 150 other people. "People were charging me, wanting hugs," he said.

Reportedly a registered Republican, Van Duzer said he voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again in November.

Van Duzer hopes his trademark bear hug can symbolize unity in a time of division, he said. "I don't believe in voting party lines. When you know people's hearts, it shouldn't matter whether they're Republican or Democrat -- it's about their willingness to want to make a difference in your community, state or nation. It's okay to disagree -- that's what makes this country great. But it doesn't give you the right to be mean and hostile to the other person or party. The more we realize that and work together, the better off we'd be."

In the 2008 election, small business owner Joe Wurzelbacher, known as "Joe the Plumber," turned a spontaneous campaign encounter with Obama into a national debate on wealth distribution and stretched that 15 minutes of fame into a bid for Congress in 2012.

For now, Van Duzer is focused on his foundation and his business, which he said is "still booming" thanks to increased sales and a growing customer base. "From the bear hug to talking with the first lady to introducing the president ... I don't know what's next," he said. "It can't get any better."

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