The University of Colorado and CNBC will serve as hosts for a Republican presidential primary debate in Boulder on Oct. 28. Colorado Statesman contributor Lars Gesing was in Cleveland on Thursday to watch the frenzy unfold around the first GOP debate.
CLEVELAND — Rosemary Flury sits on the patio of the Erie Island Coffee shop on Cleveland’s East 4th Street, where hip and trendy restaurants, watering holes, coffee shops and indie boutiques usually welcome casual strollers. Not today. The 2016 presidential election cosmos and its media entourage have descended upon Cleveland.
’Tis Christmas morning for political junkies. The day of the first GOP presidential primary debate, 460 days before Election Day (but who’s counting?).
Flury curiously eyes the parade of badge-waving I’m-VIPs who swagger toward the epicenter du jour, the Quicken Loans Arena. There, in a few hours — and just a stone’s throw away from here — the 17 candidates in the GOP stampede for the Oval Office square off in their first on-stage meetings.
“I have never seen so many well-dressed women and media types before,” Flury says. “How exciting.” Her husband brought her here — from quiet Toledo — for a seminar visit.
Roaming through the streets of downtown Cleveland on this Thursday afternoon, it is hard not to get sucked into the frenzy that is “The Debate” — which, of course, is not to say that it’s impossible.
“I don’t even know what that is,” the 20-something barista behind the Erie Island Coffee counter casually admits as she hastily scribbles my name on a to-go cup. Looking out the window, you can see NBC grande dame Andrea Mitchell join a pre-debate panel of MSNBC analysts on the cable channel’s rather conspicuous 200-square-feet live broadcast stage.
“I know that it is not boring today,” the barista adds with a smirk before quickly putting back on her well-rehearsed what-can-I-get-for-you smile for the next coffee-seeker in the growing line.
Only an hour earlier, the Democratic National Committee had held a press conference in the Radisson Gateway hotel. For a brief moment, the release of the Democrat’s own debate schedule hijacked some of the non-stop media spotlight on the GOP. Volunteers made sure every reporter had a copy of the DNC “GOP Debate Bingo.” (The first one to collect five boxes in a row wins — BinGOP!) Outside, more volunteers — this time for the Republican National Committee. They play the rules of 21st Century grassroots guerilla warfare just as well: handing out the DNC autopsy of its 2014 midterm drubbings as well as a news story quoting Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley accusing party elders of Hillary favoritism.
Most of the bars in the vicinity of “The Q,” as Clevelanders affectionately call their downtown arena, have tuned their TVs to the debate. But ground zero for those left-out is the House of Blues, where the American Conservative Union holds its watch party. The miniature CPAC celebrates the GOP with panels, on-stage prayers, fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese and speeches from kids-table candidates Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum. Soggy country music rings out where raucous blues usually reigns. Outside, conveniently facing the press check-in, two activists set up shop to hand out signs warning party-goers not to trust the liberal media. I sneak by before anyone realizes I don’t work for Breitbart.
By now, it is almost midnight. George Pataki roams a decidedly quieter 4th Street. He had just finished justifying his bid for the presidency to liberal MSNBC “Hardball”-er Chris Matthews and his wingmen on the cable stage. Lesson: When you walk down the campaign trail in the largely unnoticed shoes of Pataki, you can’t be too picky about who holds the camera that gets stuck in your face.
On the way back to the hotel, my phone buzzes. A text from a friend: “Kasich as VP for Bush or Rubio? FL + OH.” Intriguing thought, two swing-staters teaming up. The next morning, armed with that question, I meet political scientist, author and CNN contributor Paul Scracic in the lobby of the downtown Westin hotel for a post-game interview.
Sracic is late. A satellite interview with a reporter from Malaysia — yes, the Malaysia that’s 9,400 miles away — has run long. Apparently, even news outlets half way around the world love them some Donald-ellian drama — never mind it is only the opening scene of Act One.
On Oct. 28 the circus rolls into Boulder for another GOP primary debate, this one on the economy.
Colorado is in for a real treat.
Lars Gesing is assistant director of CU News Corps, an explanatory journalism project at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is traveling the country, visiting every presidential battleground state for his project “States in Play.” To follow his work, visit CUNewsCorps.com.
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