Hofstra University, near Hempstead, Long Island, is an hour by car from New York City in good traffic. On Tuesday morning, you had to add another hour to your local commute. The town, effectively a suburb of New York City, was clogged with closed roads, rerouted traffic, and garbage tracks filled with sand acting as improvised roadblocks to thwart car bombers.
The 2012 presidential election campaign had come to town as Hofstra hosted the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. With that came a Secret Service lockdown of the area to protect the president and his challenger from danger. Only onstage later in the evening would we learn they more likely needed protection from each other.
Four years ago, Hofstra hosted the third presidential debate between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. That occurred amid the chaos of the financial collapse and McCain had requested a suspension of the campaigns. Four years and an Obama victory later, the effect of that fiscal crisis is still felt and is a major issue for both current campaigns.
Outside the university grounds, in the real world beyond the Secret Service bubble, members of the public met in a car park to vocalise frustrations and views. Part protest, part carnival, the atmosphere was set by a man staggering across the concrete wearing a giant Godzilla suit that he claimed represented Bain Capital, the investment company founded by Mitt Romney. This was not intended to be a positive portrayal.
This car park was a snapshot of politicised America. There was a procession of women (and a few men) wearing pink T-shirts proclaiming "I Stand Up For Planned Parenthood®" (trademark symbol included) in support of the women’s health organisation under threat from a potential Romney presidency. Trailing the group was a lone man holding a banner that read "Pray To End Abortion".
There was the anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish group protesting America’s usually unquestioned support of Israel. "This is the duty of every righteous person," said a Rabbi leading the group, expressing solidarity with the plight of Palestinians.
There was another crowd proclaiming to be "Cancer Survivors", although their political allegiance was unclear. Another group on a stage asked "What about Sudan?" and used a microphone and PA system to try to boost their cause. They may have been too polite for the occasion. A large group of Tea Party advocates sang and chanted over the top of their pleas for the president and Mitt Romney to pay attention to events in Sudan.
"Three more weeks!" was one chant, in between a verse of the song "God Bless America", counting down to Obama’s hoped-for demise.
"Wake up, America!" shouted other Tea Partiers.
"Go back to the hole that you crawled out of!" yelled another, although it remains unclear at exactly who. The Sudanese supporters seemed apolitical; the Orthodox Jews were mainly talking to themselves, as were the cancer survivors. Aggression had been mostly absent.
"Yelling is OK — just don’t throw things," warned a police officer.
"Four more years — vote for me," said another cop.
Outside the car park, a woman in her early 60s stood on the curb and waved a banner at traffic claiming "Obama Spreads Misery!"
"I love Australia!" she said, explaining how she’d visited Sydney and Cairns. "I love your Premier!"
"Prime Minister," corrected her friend.
They had both seen the Julia Gillard’s take down of Tony Abbott on YouTube.
"Obama is a Communist and he has Communist advisers," the woman holding the banner told me. "If everyone pays less tax then we can be proud."
Romney had been their favoured candidate since "the beginning", they said.
"He’s a business man," they explained. "He will make us proud of America."
Polite and friendly, they were like grandmothers that enthusiastically party at a wedding, drink a touch too much wine and later tell dirty jokes. They extended an invitation to join a debate viewing party at a nearby Marriot hotel.
Then they explained they were protesting as members of Americans For Prosperity, the ultra-conservative organisation funded by David and Charles Koch, the multi-billionaires fueling much anti-Obama sentiment.
"You can sign up on the website!" they suggested.
By 9pm, the temperature outside had dropped. Back in the bubble, the candidates were on stage in the university’s "Sports and Exhibition Complex". Inside, 82 local undecided voters, invited by polling company Gallup, were in the audience with their questions. Moderator Candy Crowley had spent the day carving out a shortlist of 12, maybe 15, that would be asked.
Journalists watched the debate on TVs in the gym next to the auditorium. Other reporters, as well as TV technicians working with the media contingent, opted to sit at tables and watch under a marquee tent sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, and take advantage of free dinner and beer.
President Obama and Mitt Romney performed their rooster dance, exited the stage, and left the aftermath to the so-called "Spin Alley". It’s here, an extension of the campus gym, where selected party proxies, surrogates, elected representatives, and officials stand under cardboard banners bearing their name and try to out-quote each other to hungry media on what just happened next door. In reality it’s a circus with performing seals. Some might instead suggest clowns.
Most insightfully, Spin Alley revealed Democrat spruikers were more relaxed than their Republican counterparts, who were animated and leaned into cameras and microphones to deliver their lines. Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana overlooked for Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidency slot, was particularly shouty. Republicans had two issues they were keen to push: Romney won and "Benghazi".
Reince Piebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, claimed the debate was "as clear a victory for Romney as in Denver" before hammering out his lines on the Benghazi attack (basically, it was Obama’s fault).
Ed Gillespie, Romney’s senior adviser, was similarly bullish but may have been watching a different debate to most: "This was never about style. It was about substance."
Meanwhile, a smiling Deval Patrick, successor to Mitt Romney as Governor of Massachusetts, said he didn’t know exactly what preparation the president had done differently, "but I hope it happens again," he said.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief adviser, attracted the most attention from media. He spoke at length but repeated a point: "It’s a flim-flam. Romney has no plan."
And so it will go on, as the Tea Partiers suggested, for three more weeks. Return of "pride", to be confirmed.
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