Electioneering: The Catalyst attends a presidential debate and Republican Party conference

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On Thursday, Sept. 22, I found myself doing something that I would not normally do: watching Fox News Channel. Bill O’Reilly, complaining about some criticism directed his way by the folks at The Daily Show, was projected before my eyes on a large television screen.

The only noise interrupting him? A blender. Making smoothies. Delicious, delicious smoothies.

I wasn’t at some party to watch the Republican presidential debate that took place later that night, though — I was in the press room at the debate itself, which Google (co-sponsors of the debate with Fox News) had decked out with couches, free food, stickers, Wi-Fi and 25 televisions to watch nine GOP presidential candidates square off to win over our hearts and minds.

The debate, held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, was part of the Republican Party of Florida’s (RPOF) Presidency5 convention taking place that weekend. Part trade-show and part old-school revival, Presidency5 featured daily agenda items including speeches from party members running for elected office and panel discussions with conservative commentators. Advocacy groups set up booths in the main convention hallway, trying to get the attention of passers-by. One featured a professional George W. Bush impersonator with whom visitors could pose for pictures (in exchange for a donation to the RPOF, natch). Another table featured FairTax advocates wanting to repeal the 16th Amendment (which allows the federal government to collect an income tax). A young Republicans’ group headed by a Jimmy Fallon lookalike wearing a pink Oxford shirt asked me if I wanted to “nix Nelson” and join the campaign to unseat Florida’s senior senator. Ronald Reagan — in the form of a cardboard cutout — was one of the items for sale at a silent auction fundraiser for the RPOF. One delegate was dressed in Revolutionary War attire, presumably trying to warn us all that the British — or the socialists, or something else — were coming to take away our freedoms.

A table manned by the Florida Federation of College Republicans asked me when I stopped by if New College had established a chapter.

I simply laughed.

During the debate itself, the media was confined to the aforementioned Google-branded room, which was described by one journalist I overheard as “the best media room I’ve seen.” The food spread featured various types of pasta (I stuck to whole wheat penne with mushrooms and asparagus in garlic sauce), salad ingredients and a hamburger bar. Everything was in Google’s ubiquitous blue, green, red and yellow, including the M&Ms being handed out and the smoothies we received. Pillows emblazoned with the Gmail, Google and YouTube logos were strewn about the white leather couches in an attempt to mix comfort with clever advertising.

Print journalists tended to stay in one corner of the room, sitting along conference room-style tables, never leaving their laptops as they tried to file their stories ahead of late deadlines. The journalists writing for online publications and blogs, though, tended to mill about the area and recline in the many couches present. An iPad or netbook would be in one hand while a BlackBerry or an iPhone would be in the other as they tried to keep up with the barrage of e-mails each candidate’s press team was sending out during the debate (I received three from Rep. Michele Bachmann’s [R-Minn.] and Rep. Ron Paul’s [R-Tex.] teams and two from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s [R-Ga.]). They, like me, spent most of the debate sending Twitter messages in reaction to whatever the candidates were saying — businessman Herman Cain tended to get a lot of laughs from the press corps for his snappy one-liners while the audience’s hostile reaction to a question asked by a soldier who just came out drew a sharp, disbelieving reaction — rather than writing actual articles.

After the debate ended, the assembled members of the press stormed into the hallway outside our Google palace where each presidential candidate’s media team was present to try and persuade us that their boss did the best job. A couple of the candidates themselves — former governor of Utah and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson — eschewed their handlers and spoke to the media directly. Others, like frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, Bachmann and Gingrich went directly to a Fox News studio set up in the hallway itself to do a live, post-debate interview with pundit Sean Hannity. While Bachmann and Gingrich left after their interviews to presumably go back to their hotels, Romney went down the line of assembled journalists and photographers to pose for photos, thank them for attending and to shake hands (including mine).

The Presidency5 convention featured a straw poll at its conclusion, where assembled delegates declared Herman Cain to be their favored candidate to win the White House in 2012 with 37 percent of the vote while Rick Perry came in second place with 15.4 percent. While attendants seemed to have their own opinions as to who the best candidate amongst the pack was, they all could agree on one thing: a strong, fervent desire to defeat Barack Obama.

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