MYRTLE BEACH — On Monday I crashed the debate “green room” of the Republican presidential candidates.
The debate was my first glimpse at how the press and the candidates maneuver around each other at a televised event. I assumed anyone with a press badge would automatically be seated front and center, close to the stage. Instead, the majority of the press sat in a filing room, watching a live feed of the debate and straining the Wi Fi with snarky updates (I’m looking at you @TheFix).
I grabbed fellow UWElectionEye contributor Will Mari, and we set off to find the entrance. Not familiar with the Myrtle Beach Convention Center’s layout or where the actual debate floor was, Will led us up an escalator — a turned-off escalator.
That should have been our first clue.
The sight that greeted us on the second floor wasn’t very helpful. Directly in front of us, two men in suits guarded an entrance. To the left, a hallway was blocked with a metal guardrail. To the right, a smaller entrance faced a mirror guardrail. Behind us was an unobstructed hallway. OK, then maybe the stage was behind us.
I walked the length of the unguarded hallway, but met a dead end. I backtracked to where the suits were standing. It has to be behind the guardrails, I decided, and when a woman in matching blazer and pencil skirt appeared out of the small, right entrance, I figured as a member of the press I could go in. I confidently stepped between the guardrail and the wall, with Will close behind.
If I was in the wrong place, someone would tell me, I decided. But I didn’t want to give them any unnecessary help, so I strode ahead without looking at the guards. Unfortunately, that little door led to a big, empty, light orange room that decidedly wasn’t the debate floor. Huh. This couldn’t have been a path to nowhere. Petite business ladies don’t materialize out of thin air. I searched the uniform walls for an answer.
“There!” I pointed to a corner and pushed through an unmarked door. Suddenly, we were in a wide, long hallway, lined with closed meeting rooms. The one across from us had a white sheet taped to the door. In printed capital letters, it read “Rick Santorum.”
Uh-oh. This didn’t seem quite right.
The hallway buzzed with finely dressed people. Pressed suits, starched shirts and beautifully tailored women in heels. Will and I stood there in jeans and a sweater, khakis and fleece. No amount of acting-the-part would make us look like we belonged.
We huddled to the wall and tried to ignore the wary glances. Someone whispered, “How did they get in here?”
I’m still not ready to give up on this, I said. I was determined to get to the debate floor. Let’s see if there’s a path ahead at the end of the hallway.
I navigated through the clumps of the business-attired. More marked doors flashed by me — “Newt Gingrich,” “Ron Paul” — and finally a sign that confirmed my suspicions: “GREEN ROOM.”
Yeah. We’re definitely not supposed to be here, I thought. The end of the hallway led to a staircase, labeled “Stage Entrance.” I returned to Will to report my findings.
Maybe we can go down through the stage entrance and just turn onto the event floor, I suggested. In response, Will said something about getting arrested.
Any debate of the matter ceased when Callista Gingrich sauntered past us. She paused to exchange a few words and smile at an aide. At this point we figuratively went down the rabbit hole.
Before, I always wondered how Callista Gingrich’s hair never moved. Now I doubted her whole existence. Her makeup was exquisite, and her embroidered, grey-and-white suit jacket fit her like a glove. Manicured from head to toe, she looked almost photo-shopped. It was hypnotizing. I wanted to reach out and touch her, to verify she was a being from this dimension.
Will leaned over to tell me, “They’re just people.” I resumed my gaping.
Ann Romney passed by us next, clad in a tan pant suit and looking a little more disheveled than her Gingrich counterpart.
I would have dwelled on her, if husband and nomination frontrunner Mitt hadn’t stepped in front of us seconds later. He was in pants and a dress shirt. Tall and broad shouldered, he looked like the business world’s poster boy, shiny and wrinkle-free. (Seriously, stage makeup is magic).
He gave us a passing glance, probably wondering what the civvies were doing here, but continued on his way.
Newt Gingrich took to our little celebrity runway next. He lumbered past, drinking a Diet Coke. He looks much larger in person, I decided. Wider, like the TV has been shrinking his physical presence.
After much crisscrossing, it was time for the candidates to take the stage. We were still standing there.
Aides and business folk ushered their respective candidates to the stage entrance, flanking the men on their way down the hall away from us. Romney was first, followed by Gingrich. Santorum and family emerged from the room in front of us. His daughters were all smiles and a black suit replaced Santorum’s well-known sweater vest, readied for a professional showdown. A young man with no campaign identification called after him, “Go get ‘em, Rick.”
Farther down, Ron Paul’s silvered head bobbed away from us. If Rick Perry had already moved out, we couldn’t see it.
The hallway steadily emptied out. I was overcome with a last ditch desire to follow the procession to the stage. But we did not.
Instead we returned to the frozen escalators and I was left wondering what might have been.
Perhaps I’ll get another shot at the debate in Charleston.