A View from the Spin Room
Two student journalists had the opportunity to experience the Republican Debate from the media’s home base at Saint Anselm College. Steven Rome and Hannah Kahn documented the night.
SR: The parking lot is dark on Constitutional Drive — where else would a debate be held? But we aren’t at a debate. We’re in an empty school bus with Justin Bieber supplying the background noise on the radio. After a hectic day of travelling, interviewing, and frantic note-taking, this actually feels normal. Our destination is anything but.
HK: We take the so-called “media shuttle” over to Saint Anselm College, watching through the window as supporters wave signs touting names like Kasich, Carson, and even Vermin Supreme. The driver kindly waves us off the bus, reminding me of my middle school commute to school, and we step out onto a snowy sidewalk filled with reporters.
SR: Entering the arena, it feels like we are waiting in line for airport security. I know I’m supposed to be here, but I still don’t believe that a press pass bearing my name is tucked in one of the envelopes stacked up on a table. But there it is — and suddenly we are unloading our unwieldy pockets and shuffling through the metal detector, warily looking at the Secret Service agent inspecting our laptops. An expansive screen blocks our view as we hesitantly move toward the stairs. When we emerge, bright reds and blues blind us. When our eyes adjust, we see rows and rows of press tables, television screens, and flashing poll numbers.
HK: The room is fully Googled out, equipped with enough free Skinny Pop to feed a small New York suburb. Naturally, we locate the buffet, although we seem to be the only journalists smart enough to take advantage. All of the other media members are already set up, iPad in one hand and Coke Zero in another, ready to fervently watch the debate. The Filing Center, which will later morph into the Spin Room, is the hub of journalism for the GOP Debate, and our home for the next six hours.
SR: So much free stuff!
HK: All of the journalists know each other, or at least are very good at pretending to know each other. One of them even pats me on the back as if we’d been friends for years. I feign recognition, smile, and realize this initial key to journalism: act like you belong.
SR: As the youngest people in the room, this isn’t easy. But we plop down, peer around the room, and begin to work. After circling the room — I spot Michael Scherer, the Washington Bureau Chief for TIME, set up on the far side of the floor — we begin our duties by investigating the most important part of the night: the food. As we return with our steak, the Google-sponsored screens showing a dizzying array of polling data transition to an ABC logo, the audio turns on, and we take a deep breath — this is it.
HK: The beginning of the debate is catastrophic for the candidates, but hilarious for “us” journalists. A few hundred yards from us, Ben Carson is called onto the debate stage, but for some reason, he stalls in the entrance. After being ushered on by backstage crew, and lapped by a few candidates, Carson finally walks out, but this time, Trump stands his ground, not moving when they call his name. They end the cringeworthy introduction with, “And last but not least, Marco Rubio,” even though they have yet to call Kasich’s name. We take comfort in knowing that we’re not the only people who don’t know what we’re doing.
SR: Everyone in the room is cracking up. I think Carson is trying to make some sort of grand statement. Turns out, as he told us later, there were audio troubles. It is a wacky start that seems fitting for this unusual campaign. The snubbing of Kasich doesn’t seem totally innocent — he has been campaigning on another universe, it seems, running as a more positive, moderate candidate in a race that has been characterized by candidates pushing the party to its ideological extreme. But I think he performed well, and New Hampshire is a much more hospitable environment for his more centrist views. What did you think?
HK: I agree — and it didn’t hurt that this was a relatively toned down debate for Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who normally dominate Kasich’s air time. This was the first Republican debate during which I forgot that Trump and Cruz were even there, if only for a moment. To me, the governors all pulled out their best performances thus far.
SR: The governor-versus-senator debate was central to the evening. Chris Christie went after Marco Rubio— hard. He had nothing to lose, slamming the Florida senator for “not [having been] involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t.” As Rubio played right into Christie’s hands — he was clearly flustered and unable to say anything more than repeat what he had just said — it seemed space was made for all of the governors.
HK: Rubio’s “soundbite” moment was freakishly robotic. Everyone in the room could tell that Rubio really choked, and that Christie was anticipating it. He quickly pounced, “You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.” I felt like that was a turning point for both of them in the debate, but I don’t know how much traction Christie will really gain from it.
SR: I agree — if Christie, Bush, and Kasich all did well, did any of them gain anything? Rubio’s momentum in the more “establishment” lane after over-performing in Iowa was definitely deflated. But I wonder if one of the governors distinguished himself from the other two. If anything, I think Trump might have gained from these exchanges. It’s remarkable: outside of Bush, whom he can easily overpower, no one attacks him.
HK: And Jeb Bush didn’t even go after Trump, really — excluding the issue of eminent domain, which no one understood anyway. Trump seemed to come away fairly unscathed.
SR: After Trump condescendingly put down Bush on that issue (“quiet”), he did face boos from the audience. He blamed that on “all of [Bush’s] donors and special interests out there.” He said the RNC gave all tickets to the debate to donors, which didn’t ingratiate himself any further. I doubt this has any impact, though. The Hill’s most recent poll shows the businessman with a 17-point lead.
HK: Trump seemed to maintain a steady hand during this debate, and I think it worked for him. I can actually see him winning New Hampshire, which I would not have said if you asked me even a few weeks ago. When we asked Vaughan Hillyard (a Cruz campaign embed from NBC News), he seemed to agree, saying, “Trump is back in the debate.” His absence last time didn’t seem to affect him at all.
SR: After the second commercial break, staff members begin setting up metal fences in preparation for the Spin Room. In hopes of securing a good spot, we leave our desks and begin lingering in the central area. Earlier in the day, I had stopped by the Kasich campaign headquarters, which, by the way, were much more organized and busy than the near-empty Cruz room. I recognize the communications director from Kasich’s campaign and approach her to ask her how she thought the governor was doing.
HK: I hide behind my camera.
SR: She introduces me to Bob Walker, a Republican from Pennsylvania who served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1997 and an endorser of Kasich. “He’s doing extremely well,” Walker said. “He’s a uniting candidate, in contrast to [the others’] hammering of each other. He has a more positive agenda.” I asked him about the governor-senator divide. “People who have real governing experience translate into better presidents. Governors have a leg up. I’m a former legislator — and I would be a terrible executive.”
HK: Walker added that, “Kasich needs an outcome on Tuesday that shows he has the strength to win in the governors’ lane.” I agree, but I’m not sure how much it will matter in the end.
SR: We barely notice when the debate ends, as all the journalists are already huddled by the barriers.
HK: There is a lot of under-the-breath passive aggressiveness between the journalists, who are having a sort of debate of their own over who deserves to stand in front of whom. When one ABC reporter side-steps in front of a Saint Anselm professor, using the excuse, “I’m hosting this event,” she gives him an award-winning eye-roll even so disdainful even Trump would be jealous.
SR: There’s a lot of uncomfortable, claustrophobic waiting around. Eventually, a little red sign emerges from the doorway at the far end of the room announcing John Kasich’s arrival in a scrum of suits.
HK: I came to the debate with a preconceived notion that the moment the candidates arrived in the Spin Room, it would automatically explode with frantic clicking of cameras and questions piled one on top of another. I was surprised to find it somewhat orderly, possibly due to the lack of candidates who actually showed up.
SR: Yes, this was one of the most surprising things of the night. Only Kasich, Carson, and Trump appear, and Kasich makes a bee-line for one of the television booths reporting live. Behind us a red Christie sign seems to appear out of nowhere, but few people approach the surrogates right away. Eventually, Carson’s slow-moving cadre approaches us.
HK: A sudden strike of confidence hits me, and I go for Carson’s jugular.
SR: Now I’m the one hiding behind my camera.
HK: Referencing his lame deflection of a foreign policy question, replying, “The fact of the matter is none of us up here is a military expert, and we sometimes act like we are, but we’re not,” I ask him a question along the lines of, “Does this make you under-qualified to be Commander-in-Chief?” His eloquent response: “No…No…Where’d you get that from?” He then proceeds to try to impress me by naming every president he knows, saying they, like him, were not military experts. Although he goes on a bit too long for my taste, I appreciate him “answering” my question, as he was the only candidate to even try.
SR: I ask him if he thought he had enough speaking time tonight (he often began his responses by joking about his silence). He ignores me.
HK: Next up is Trump.
SR: We can spot his yellow hair (if you call it that) from across the room.
HK: He totes his wife behind him, or maybe it’s his daughter — I can’t be sure. Both are here and look like Barbies, and I don’t mean the new politically correct ones.
SR: A Japanese reporter and camera team is standing next to us. I call out to Trump, asking if he is concerned about voters turning out for him, after his second-place finish in Iowa. (He was leading in the polls.) But as Trump walks by, he pivots, points, and declares, “I have a lot of respect for Japan.”
HK: I’m sure he does.
SR: A Cruz surrogate told me he was not concerned about the amount of leadership experience a senator has compared to a governor. “I don’t think it makes a whit of a difference,” he said. “We need someone who has a vision. If you are elected, you are a leader. Cruz is a consistent conservative talking about the problems of the country. What is important is his vision and values, his demeanor.” He also noted that Rubio got a boost from Iowa even though he finished third, while Cruz actually won and didn’t get much momentum. But he said the record turnout in Iowa sent a “strong message” for the Texas senator. I asked him if he was concerned if someone as hardline as Cruz could win a general election. “Romney wasn’t electable,” he retorted. “McCain wasn’t electable.”
HK: I approach a Christie rep, who — in contrast with the actual Christie — is bubbly and interested in what we have to say. Brent Seaborn talked about how, “Christie was good on his feet, a real contrast from Rubio,” but conceded that further down the road, Rubio’s experience as senator could be sufficient to be president.
SR: The aides and reporters start to funnel out at around midnight, and we begin to pack up our stuff. I glance toward the barricades, which minutes ago were swarmed by the press. Ben Carson is still there.
HK: It’s kind of sad, really.
SR: After a cold, fifteen-minute wait, our trusty yellow school bus emerges from the dark.
HK: Bill Rome (our driver), bless his heart, is waiting for us back at Constitution Drive.
SR: Despite this 2,000-plus word attempt, the experience is impossible to describe. It was simply surreal being in the center of the political world for a night.
HK: In all seriousness, we can’t thank Mr. Liberti and Mr. Madin enough for making this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible, and for coaching us through the whole way.