Live from the Reagan Library: Blogging the GOP Presidential Debate

Through the good graces of my friend Hugh Hewitt, I’m pleased to report that I am typing this from the Reagan Library, where it is now just four and a half hours before the first GOP Presidential debate will take place.
I’ll be blogging when I can on the goings-on at the site. Since the place is full of “real journalists”, I’ll be focusing more on covering the coverage, and hopefully giving the blogosphere a little behind-the-scenes view of how an event like this works.
Right now, I’m perched up on “radio row”, conveniently located on a balcony looking directly down on the “spin room”, where the candidates and/or their flacks will be doing their best to put their best feet forward throughout the day and into the night. There are only five radio outlets set up here, including Hugh (who is broadcasting live from the site this afternoon, natch). The BBC is one of them, but they are thus far AWOL. So like any good blogger would, I swiped their spot:

We’ll see how long until I get evicted. Or perhaps British courtesy will win out and I’ll just get a “right-o; carry on good chap!’.
The spin room itself:

A better view of Radio Row in its entirety:

And where better to put Radio Row than… next to the cafeteria! (No, really.)

And the view from the Reagan library itself — fabulous! This is just in one direction:

More to come throughout the day…
1:39 pm: Hmmm. A subtle plea for fiscal responsibility from the cafe staff?

2:12 pm: Here’s the “filing center”. Looks like about 180 spots for the press corps. Yikes.

And the ‘spin room’ as of now. More or less the quiet before the storm. If I understand correctly, the big candidates probably won’t make an appearance here until after the debate, if at all. But I did nearly bump into Ron Paul and his entourage a few moments ago…

2:27 pm: Yup, that was Ron Paul:

(he’s the blur on the left)
He looked a bit lonely. I’ll have to go see if he’ll talk to a lowly blogger next time his orbit returns him here…
3:04 pm: Correction! That’s not Ron Paul above, rather, it’s Charlie Black, one of John McCain’s folks. My bad! Charlie was kind enough to chat with me for a few moments, but when I asked, said that Senator McCain is not planning on stopping by the spin room. Bummer.
Check back for further updates throughout the day to find out who I confuse for Ron Paul next!
3:13 pm: Yikes. I was just informed that the good news is I have a ticket to get into the debate hall proper — but the bad news is, I have to be there by 3:30, after which the doors close. The debate doesn’t start until 5pm. So that might put a crimp in my blogging ability, but we’ll see…
6:55 am, the morning after: Well, as I feared in the last update above, the debate room itself was most certainly a no-blogging zone. I arrived there on-time, showed my “spin room” pass:

(which didn’t work), and then my “debate guest” pass and debate ticket:

(which did). Going in the door, I promptly found myself… backstage. Equipment, cabling everywhere. Actually had to hunt around a bit to figure out how to get out and into the public area. Odd !
Seating was extremely limited (they weren’t kidding about that) and it was all assigned seats. I ended up nearly dead-center in the room, a mere three rows almost directly behind the Governator and Mrs. Reagan.
The Air Force One pavilion was certainly impressive. I was disappointed that I didn’t have time or opportunity to see more of it — security for the event being in place, they clearly weren’t encouraging folks to wander around and explore. I had never been to the Reagan Library before, and honestly it never occurred to me to be a destination I should seek out. But having seen just a bit of it, I’d definitely like to return — a great facility in a spectacular setting.
So here’s a few shots of the debate area itself:

After Mrs. Reagan was escorted into the room by the Governator, the candidates filed in. But it was about ten minutes before air time, and so they were basically left to mill around for a while:

Now, as for the debate itself. If you want to know how the candidates played in the room to the in-person audience, well… I have no idea. Because the forum was so stringent about the “no applause” rule, it was more or less impossible to really know who was playing well with the crowd and who wasn’t. But I can tell you my own impressions, which I suppose are in some way different from those you’d get from viewing on TV, simply because I could watch all the candidates while they reacted to others or simply waited to speak. A small thing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that subtly influenced my perception versus that of folks who watched on TV.
So here goes. Mitt Romney:

In my view, the clear winner of the debate. His only weak answer was on his position on abortion, and that’s one he just has to live with since he genuinely has changed his position. But other than that, he was solid and yes, Presidential on everything. He also benefited from a stroke of luck: because he was all the way on the far-left, that meant that on all the “down the line” questions, he got to go first, which his definitely used to his advantage to get in some good lines.
John McCain:

I disagree with many of McCain’s positions (campaign finance ‘reform’ in particular). But I definitely don’t share the visceral dislike of the man that many of my right-leaning blogging colleagues have. He’s a genuine Porkbuster, and he’s been strong on the war, and those are two of my biggies, so I’m definitely willing to give him a fair hearing.
But last night he just didn’t get it done. With respect to friend Erick, I thought his delivery was strangely angry, and frequently disorganized. Which was doubly odd, because before the debate actually started (during the milling about phase), he seemed downright cheery, and appeared to almost be horsing around up on the stage. But maybe that was his version of punchiness or nerves.
Rudy Giuliani:

I thought Giuliani did ok — not great, but OK — after the debate was over. Maybe hurt himself a little — his abortion answer in particular was weak, and you would think that by now, he’d have the whole “I’d leave it to the courts” answer down pat in a more smooth delivery.
But reading through commentary this morning — wow. I think it’s safe to say that he did indeed hurt himself, and not just a little.
I hardly noticed, but apparently, there were seven candidates on the stage whose names were not Romney, Giuliani, or McCain. None of them made much of an impression on me, although once and for all, here is the real Ron Paul:

Ron Paul scares me. He came across as a kind of grumpy, isolationist Jiminy Cricket.
And speaking of scary, I haven’t watched Hardball in … well, ever. So I can’t recall when the last time I actually saw Chris Matthews was, and therefore was not aware that he had turned into a thousand year old walrus:

When the debate was over, I joined my new friend Russ from Salem Radio in the important task of whisking Kenneth Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) from the debate hall up to Radio Row to do a little post-debate discussion with Hugh. Starr was an amiable and friendly fellow (didn’t threaten to investigate me even once). Here he is chatting with Hugh after Russ and I successfully accomplished our mission:

With the debate over, the spinning began in earnest. Here’s the spin room in full swing:

The rule seems to be, if you’re a top-tier candidate, you don’t show up in the spin room personally. So for example, Mitt Romney had his son Tagg doing some interviews:

And hey, look, it’s my buddy Charlie Black again!

(who is not Ron Paul, I am obliged to point out).
The second-tier candidates, on the other hand, did show up personally, at least some of them. Tom Tancredo grabbed some coffee (a man after my own heart) to steel himself for the ordeal:

Strangely, Tancredo was also seen at the entrance to the spin room, insisting that the security guards double-check everyone’s credentials before allowing them in. (Kidding).
Also making appearances were Jim Gilmore and I believe Duncan Hunter and Sam Brownback. I didn’t see Ron Paul around, so I assume he was off scaring small children somewhere.
And lastly, a shot of Radio Row from the spin room floor (Hugh’s the blur on the left):

Overall, it was definitely a great experience to not just see the debate live but get a behind-the-scenes view of the process. I can’t say I walked away knowing terribly much more about the candidates or their positions than I came in with, but it was a fun day and hopefully I’ve contributed something by sharing a bit o’ the behind-the-curtain view with the blogosphere. My thanks again to Hugh for bringing me along!

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