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Anecdotal Evidence, debate edition

Elephant-watching in Cleveland

A+passerby+takes+a+photo+as+MSNBC%27s+Kasie+Hunt+and+Steve+Kornacki+report+in+front+of+the+Quicken+Loans+Arena+in+Cleveland%2C+Ohio%2C+ahead+of+the+GOP+primary+debate.+Photo%3A+Lars+Gesing%2FCU+News+Corps
A passerby takes a photo as MSNBC's Kasie Hunt and Steve Kornacki report in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, ahead of the GOP primary debate. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

A passerby takes a photo as MSNBC's Kasie Hunt and Steve Kornacki report in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, ahead of the GOP primary debate. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

A passerby takes a photo as MSNBC's Kasie Hunt and Steve Kornacki report in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, ahead of the GOP primary debate. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Lars Gesing, CU News Corps Assistant Director

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Logo final_highUsually, this column is reserved for campaign trail anecdotes from political movers and shakers in key battleground states. Well… they were all busy watching the first Republican primary debate Thursday. So, instead, this is our unfiltered – and slightly bewildered – look at the circus that unfolded in LeBron-town these last few days.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Rosemary Flury sits on the patio of the Erie Island Coffee shop on Cleveland’s E. 4th St., where hip and trendy restaurants, watering holes, coffee shops and indie boutiques usually welcome casual strollers. Not today. Today is different. 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 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.

“He is a librarian, not the most exciting field,” she says, affectionately joking. “When I heard this was happening, all of a sudden this trip became a lot more interesting.”

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 of caffeinated elixir. 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 and increasingly weary line.

READ: The interviewee strikes back

Only an hour earlier, the Democratic National Committee held a press conference in the Radisson Gateway hotel. For a brief moment, the release of the Democrats’ 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 and hand out the DNC autopsy of its 2014 midterm drubbings plus a news story quoting Martin O’Malley accusing his party elders of Hillary favoritism.

Most of the bars in the vicinity of “The Q,” as Clevelanders affectionately call their downtown arena, have turned their TVs to the debate. But ground zero for the 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 well-received speeches from kids-table candidates Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum. Soggy country music rings where raucous blues usually reigns. Outside, conveniently facing the press check in, two guys set up provisory shop to hand out signs that warn 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 St. He had just finished justifying his bid for the presidency to liberal MSNBC “Hardball”-er Chris Matthews and his wingmen on the cable stage. Note: 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, and 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 has run a little long. Yes… the Malaysia that’s 9,400 miles away from Cleveland. Apparently even news outlets there love them some Trumped-up drama – never mind it is only the opening scene of act one.

UPDATE, August 10: The Colorado Statesman has re-published this story.

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
Anecdotal Evidence, debate edition