Coming of age at the CNN debate 

Disappointed visitors, jaded reporters, and a failed protest at the Coliseum

In the 1914 James Joyce short story "Araby," a pubescent boy from Dublin longs to go to an exotic bazaar outside of town so he can buy a gift for his friend's enchanting sister. After begging his uncle for some money, he strikes out for the Araby market with high hopes in the failing late-afternoon light. When he arrives, he finds most of the stalls closed, the remaining vendors too distracted to pay him any heed, and little to engage his senses but the clink of coins as tradesmen count their earnings. The lights go out above him, and in a flash of disappointment, he comes of age.

At the Southern Republican Presidential Debate, held Thursday night in the North Charleston Coliseum, few reporters had illusions about what they were walking into. They knew the drill: the media room with big-screen projections of the debate floor, the rows of tables prickling with Wi-Fi antennae, the orgy of snark and slant as the pundits took to Twitter, and then, at the end, the scrum in the concourse as reporters and TV cameramen jostled for quotes from campaign advisors and politicos. Any newcomer would have to quickly learn that what he was witnessing was not a debate of ideas between four candidates, but rather a series of verbal airstrikes planned by unseen campaign tacticians and broadcast nationwide with real-time commentary.

At the beginning of the evening, outside the public entrance to the Coliseum, a crowd of about 25 Occupy protesters stood in a cluster, chanting familiar refrains like "We are the 99 percent" and haranguing the people entering the Coliseum as well as the police who stood in a row watching them. One Charleston occupier had somehow finagled her way into the press room and was trying to find a way backstage so she could unfurl a banner behind the candidates reading "Money Out of Politics." It never happened.

Also among the malcontents on the sidewalk were about 50 people who had paid $45 apiece for a day pass to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the GOP convention that included the debate, but were turned away at the door. Many had web receipts and screen printouts in hand, but when they got to the front of the line, they were told they were not on the list. An SRLC official said the people had registered after the deadline of noon on Friday, but the irate visitors said they had arrived at the registration web page through a Google search and seen no notice of the deadline.

About five minutes before the debate was to begin, Edward Grennan of Atlanta was giving up and heading for a bar to watch the debate on TV. Grennan was wearing a Ron Paul hoodie and said the bulk of the people who had been turned away were Paul supporters. He had bought four tickets.

"It's not the $180 — that's the least of it," Grennan said. "It's the six-and-a-half-hour drive here to go to the debate."

The press room, which was packed with hundreds of journalists — some more jaded than others — provided a lively laugh track to the debate, sometimes when the candidates had not intended to be funny. Mitt Romney's claim that he had lived "in the real streets of America" drew jeers, and Romney's fumbling response to a request that he release his last 12 years' tax returns had reporters elbowing each other in the ribs and proclaiming how royally he had just screwed the pooch.

Many wrote their ledes and mentally declared a winner during Newt Gingrich's opening salvo, in which he responded to rumors that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage by blasting CNN and lamenting the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media." Forty-five minutes in, talking over a bathroom stall during a commercial break, one reporter said he had already filed his two articles for the evening and intended to take things easy from then on out.

At the end, as the crowd filtered out of the arena, former S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson reflected on the arc of his involvement with the 2012 campaign cycle. He had started out as Gingrich's South Carolina campaign manager, but he was part of the mass exodus of staffers in June 2011 following the campaign's rocky start and near-implosion. He later signed on to advise Rick Perry, who resigned Thursday morning after floundering at the bottom of South Carolina polls.

"This has been an election season that has turned into a reality show of presidential politics, and, to that point, sort of a drive-by shooting of a lot of candidates," Dawson said, raising his voice over the scrambling din. "I don't think you'll see another season happen like this."


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