Viewing the Romney-Obama debate in battleground Ohio: a tribal experience

There's much cheering and a close watch on social media as two partisan crowds in Ohio, a state that could swing the election, track the ebb and flow of momentum in Tuesday's presidential debate.

By , Staff writer

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    Romney supporters watch the second presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama at Marshall's Restaurant and Bar, on Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio. Three weeks before the presidential election, both parties are working hard to get their candidates elected. Ohio is a key battleground state.
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What do you do when you’re invited to two parties on the same night? Easy. You go to both.

And so it was on Tuesday night, both the Romney and Obama campaigns here in Columbus, Ohio – the heart of the ultimate battleground state – set up “debate-watching parties” to cheer on their respective candidates.

A quick check on Mapquest revealed that they were taking place only about three miles apart, and voilà, a party-hopping strategy was born: We (your correspondent and her colleague, Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman) would start out at the Romney event, then after about 40 minutes, jump in our car and go over to the Obama event.

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After all, we didn’t want to appear biased. And there was so much at stake for each side: President Obama was under intense pressure to step up his game after a lackluster performance in the first debate two weeks ago. Mitt Romney, riding high from his Oct. 3 triumph, had an opportunity to build on the momentum that has turned the race into a dead heat.

Who would attend these events? And how would the partisans react? The Romney tribe – top Ohio campaign staff, volunteers, and supporters, about 130 people in all – gathered at a sports bar called Marshall’s. Chris Lockwood, the US editor of The Economist, visiting from London, was also in the house. We counted 12 TVs, all tuned to Fox News. The libations flowed freely.  

To be sure, each side cheered on its man and snorted derisively at the opposition. But in fact, there was also a fair amount of silent, attentive listening – and apparent monitoring of social media on smart phones and laptops. These were serious politicos.

Mr. Romney won applause and laughter when he turned the tables on Mr. Obama over the bailout of the auto industry. It was the president, in fact, who “took Detroit bankrupt,” Romney said. Romney’s mention of “that pipeline from Canada,” the Keystone XL pipeline, which he supports, in contrast to Obama, also won applause.

When Romney stood his ground in the face of attempted interruptions by Obama – “You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking,” Romney said –his supporters cheered. This contrasts with the reactions of undecided voters, who (we later learned from focus groups) did not like the moments when the two contenders moved into close physical proximity and talked over each other and over the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Perhaps the most emotionally involved debate-watcher in the room was Pamela Lanier of Columbus, who shook her fist at the TV screen when Obama spoke about small businesses.

“I’m a small-business owner,” Ms. Lanier told Ms. Freeman. “Obama wasn’t in there turning on the lights and emptying the trash. I employ five women.”

Time now to migrate to the Obama tribe, gathered in a movie theater at the Ohio State University (OSU). We walk in to a sea of faces – mostly college students, some campaign volunteers and staff, and the Democratic nominee for Ohio’s Third Congressional District, Joyce Beatty – all trained on giant Romney and giant Obama on the big screen. It’s tuned to MSNBC, of course. 

During the ride over, we missed the discussion of contraception (we later learned), which probably played well with this crowd. But there were other moments for the Obama fans to cheer, such as when Ms. Crowley backed up Obama on the question of whether he had called the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an act of terror in his Rose Garden appearance on Sept. 12.

“He did in fact, sir,” Crowley said, contradicting Romney. The Obama supporters at OSU erupted in cheers.

A closer look at the transcript reveals that Obama’s reference to “acts of terror” is not clearly about Benghazi. And he did for days continue to blame a YouTube video for the violence, not terrorism. But the instant verdict by Crowley allowed Obama to score a temporary point.

When Romney’s answer on gun control morphed into a discussion of child-bearing, this statement brought an audible gasp from the crowd: “To tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone – that's a great idea.”

“Did he just say that?!” an audience-member responded incredulously.

But it was Obama’s final flourish of the debate that brought on the biggest cheer: He finally dropped a reference to Romney’s recorded private comment slamming “the 47 percent.”

“I believe Governor Romney is a good man. He loves his family, cares about his faith,” Obama said. “But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility – think about who he was talking about.”

People on Social Security, Obama continued. And veterans, students, soldiers, low-wage workers.

After failing to bring up the infamous 47 percent remark in the first debate, to the dismay of the president’s Democratic base, Obama had finally gotten in his dig.

“This time he found his voice,” said Sherry Girves, an Obama volunteer, after the debate.

Said a student: “I’m so glad I skipped studying to go to this.”

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