CHARLESTON – I thought I knew what to expect when I attended my first nationally televised debate last night, but I was wrong.
Arriving at the North Charleston Coliseum, Plan A for the UWElectionEye team was to go into the press entrance, where we thought our credentials for the event awaited us. Nope. Plan B got us into the debate hall with voters and the candidates. Not bad at all.
We found the closest nose-bleed seats we could find, only to see that a building beam blocked the whole stage; that’s why they’d been left empty. So we moved up to an even higher location that was two rows from the back, which gave us a view of the whole spectacle before us.
The organizers urged everyone to get in their seats fast for the “Pre-Game” to start, and I wondered what’s a presidential debate pre-game? Soon, South Carolina leaders came out to the stage to tout their influence in the state or political sphere. Governor Nikki Haley praised the presence of Boeing in the state and how South Carolina was positioned to define the future of this country.
Sitting in the crowd of a nationally televised debate changed my entire view of these debates. Whether it was the standing ovation that Newt Gingrich got at the start for his digging into CNN moderator John King or the crowd chanting for Ron Paul to get time to answer about abortion — it was clear that the crowd played just as large of a role in what was happening as the facilitator and media did. That is rarely as apparent when watching on television. The candidates feed off on the crowd energy.
I have always wondered, what do people do on commercial break? The answer is that the crowd gets to stand but must remain close to their seats, the facilitator does a quick check of questions and talks to the camera operators, and the candidates – well they can do whatever they want.
A few times the four men behind the podiums went to the edge of the stage, talking with folks in the front row. Other times they chugged some water and reviewed key points in their notes. Toward the end, they utilized the breaks for chats with close personnel. But the majority of the time, they just walked around. Sometimes it was hard to find them at all!
When the debate ended we immediately bolted from the auditorium into a waiting area by a curtain, hoping that someone would emerge to usher us into the “Spin Room” where we would be able to follow to talk to candidate representatives and supporters.
We made it in and I had the overwhelmed feeling all over again. Individuals were holding signs to denote certain candidate areas, but aside from that it was a complete maze of people, cameras, and individuals much taller than me.
The only way to know people were talking at all was to watch mobs of people huddle around one thing, that could barely be seen, and you were left with the assumption that someone important was in the middle of this hub.
But if one pushed to the front hard enough, it was sometimes surprising who was there. My hardest push landed me at the elbows of Rick Santorum and his wife, Karen. Not a place I expected to find myself — ever.
The evening was powerful. As a reporter, a student, a citizen, I learned a great deal. It would be great if Washington state had the opportunity to have candidates campaign for days, like South Carolina does. We’d have the first-hand experiences like I had at the debate.