Columbus, Ohio -- A steady line slithers down Indianola Avenue leading to the Studio 35 Cinema and Drafthouse. Heated policy debate warms the otherwise brisk autumn air as central Ohio citizens from across the political spectrum sound off while patiently waiting for the box office to open.
Still more than two hours before the candidates take the stage, these folks aren't waiting for Biden and Palin. Tonight, the debate isn't just on the screen -- it's on the street.
"You have to wonder if Palin is out of her league," suggests Mark Steinmetz, a photographer and photo researcher. "Sure, she's been in debate boot camp for the past two weeks, but can we really expect more than canned answers?"
Despite the fear of scripted debate performances, this is far from the choreographed campaign events Ohio has seen in recent months. Signs and slogans of obedient followers have been replaced this evening by pointed arguments and sarcastic suppositions. Two guys toward the back of the line are reciting New Rules verbatim from HBO's Realtime for the amusement of the larger throng of college cohorts. No one is here for "Shakespeare in the Park", but "Bill Maher in the Alley" seems to be a crowd pleaser. (Then again, the Bard was always something of a populist.)
Fervent conversations fall to a low hum as the doors open and everyone shuffles inside.
Studio 35 is the oldest independent theatre in Columbus, and it shows. Beneath the hodgepodge of renovations are the old bones and charming, weathered edges that corporate movie houses fail to duplicate. It is a credibility gap shared by politicians and multiplexes alike -- you can't fake authenticity.
Just north of the Ohio State University campus, student influences have merged with the nostalgic vibe of the single screener, as illustrated by the vintage marquee and modern menu. Few movie venues offer regional beers on tap and hand-tossed pizzas delivered from down the block. This evening's debate is no red carpet event, but it may be the best place in Columbus to wash down America's bitter political division with a pint and a slice.
Debate watchers here are actually in for a double-feature. The Columbus International Film and Video Festival cleverly scheduled their screening of "How Ohio Pulled It Off" to run as the opening act for the Vice Presidential Debate. The documentary speculates that organized fraud continues to affect elections in Ohio and throughout the country, an easy sell to many Ohioans who waited upwards of ten hours to vote in 2004.
"How Ohio Pulled It Off" is one of three election protection themed films screening before the official festival begins in November. Despite being the longest-running film festival in North America, the "Chris Awards" have operated in relative obscurity outside the filmmaking industry. But this year, the organizers are hoping to shake their stodgy stereotype by offering more high profile, public events in addition to those held strictly for competition and judging.
"I'm thrilled by the turnout, but the debate might just make my head explode," confesses Susan Halpern, executive director of the film festival. "The downturn in the economy certainly has people reconsidering the last eight years of deregulation. Events like this encourage discussion."
As the crowd of graying former hippies and freshly minted hipsters rush to get their popcorn and drink orders in before the film begins, debate speculation starts to simmer.
"Everyone's greatest fear is that Biden will verbally assault Palin and she will get away with low-level talking points," comments Bob Fitrakis, 2006 independent Ohio gubernatorial candidate and Editor of the Columbus Free Press, one of the screening's sponsors. "These debates are increasingly significant because early voting allows the election to be decided before election day."
Fitrakis, also an author and political science professor at Columbus State, is a leading authority on election fraud and has been interviewed for numerous investigations into voting impropriety in Ohio. He is a familiar face to many in attendance. "This year's election proves that the message ultimately matters. I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime in politics."
John McGonigle moved to Columbus from Arizona two years ago and says he's here to "take it all in", but doubts the debate will change his vote. "I hope this race is more about policies than the characters involved, but I doubt that will be the case."
Ohio has eight presidential tickets on their ballots this year, and not everyone here falls into the two most obvious camps. This past July, Libertarian candidate Bob Barr successfully challenged restrictive Ohio ballot requirements, deemed by a 2006 Ohio appeals court to be some of the most stringent in the nation.
With signature requirements overruled, the field widened to recently include Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin. McKinney's popularity in the state dates back to the release of American Blackout, another documentary investigating voter suppression accusations, specifically in largely African American precincts. Ron Paul is not on the Ohio ballot, but his bumper stickers are prominent on the cars parked along the streets approaching the theater.
This is the crowd that could turn the tide of the election, in Ohio and perhaps the nation. Their sentiments range from optimism to outrage. Tonight's performance has the potential to win support from independent voters or push them further toward the far left or far right. These are the critical votes the Obama and McCain campaigns know will secure victory or spoil their chances in Ohio. But many here tonight say they still worry about their votes being counted.
"People need to take responsibility for protecting their votes," notes Sarah Cherry, an election law attorney. "In 2004, I worked at a precinct that had a three hour line. Be skeptical. Voting is a unique right and you only get one shot at it."
As the documentary wraps up, the gathering wave of latecomers floods the lobby. Unlike the largely activist crowd that preceded it, this group is more diverse in every way -- young and old, black and white, neck ties and tie dyes. There is even a Sarah Palin impersonator complete with up-do and a Miss Congeniality sash.
Someone points out a reporter from The Times of London milling about, but he vanishes amid the surge now filling the theater. (It is later revealed he ducked out early to cover a Republican watch party downtown.) With all seats filled and standing room only in the bar and lobby, Studio 35's owner Eric Brembeck is forced to go outside to tell the remaining line he has to cut them off or risk an unfriendly visit from the fire marshal.
"Our limit is 350. I expected a crowd, but I didn't expect this," Brembeck says with a perplexed shrug. He notes this kind of turnout matches the crowd for an OSU National Championship game. "People are excited just to be here."
Brembeck talks about the similarity between film and politics, experiences that both take on additional significance when shared with others. "This is the first time we've done anything political like this. We're one of only a few remaining community theaters, so it breaks my heart to turn people away."
The rowdy crowd dies down as the debate begins, but the silent, attentive mood doesn't last long. Audience response to Palin oscillates between boos and hissing punctuated by bursts of laughter. Biden gets in a few digs to wild applause, despite being briefly tongue-tied on a couple of points.
"The first presidential debate was painful," observes Nancy Kangas, a librarian and writer. "This one is at least more fun than painful." Asked if any of Palin's comments surprised her, Kangas replies, "No, not really -- but I didn't expect her to wink as much," noting Palin's folksy acknowledgement to family members in the audience. "I do think Biden came across as the stronger candidate."
"BINGO," yells a voice from the back of the theater. I made my way over to find several seniors playing Palin Bingo among themselves, with squares featuring some of the governor's famous talking points like: Hockey, Russia, Lipstick and Ummm. Ida Seitter is a schedule coordinator for a rehabilitation center (and tonight's first Bingo winner). "My main concern is that if something happened to McCain that Palin would step in. Nothing has changed my opinion that she needs to be more knowledgeable on the issues."
Though not as competitive, several have abandoned Bingo and are now simply keeping score on how many times Palin says the word "maverick". A group of college-age girls have actually turned it into a drinking game. Says one who asks to remain anonymous, "the only way I can tolerate Sarah Palin this long is to self-medicate."
Biden's comments on rights for same sex couples draw huge applause. Looking back from the front of the theater, his smile sometimes seems infectious. The only remark that earns greater response is Biden's contention that McCain's insurance plans are "the ultimate bridge to nowhere." The differences in the candidates' positions are not lost on Capital University nursing student Mollie Pence. "I didn't expect much out of either of them, but it is shocking how unqualified she is. I'm in favor of Obama's universal healthcare plan because it affects my patient population and their ability to receive medical treatment."
"There is not enough credit given to her stay at home husband," suggests Laura Newberry, a health policy manager and mother of an infant daughter who seems content to sleep through the debate. When asked about disputed opinions that Palin's role as a mother helps or hurts the campaign, Newberry replies, "We don't talk about Biden balancing being a senator and father. It shouldn't be an issue for either candidate."
Palin's generalized answers have also worn down general decorum. "I don't give a fuck about Alaska. We get it; you have moose and oil. We don't have much of either in Ohio," exclaims John Herbert in frustration to the entire bar. "She begins practically every sentence with HERE IN ALASKA..."
A chemistry professor at Ohio State, Herbert tempers his follow-up. "She is illiterate on foreign affairs and her being from a backwater state isn't a good enough excuse. I'm from Kansas, what many would also call a backwater state, as was Bill Clinton being governor of Arkansas. Clinton was knowledgeable and well-read about foreign policy matters. Palin is not."
As the debate winds down and the house lights come up, it's clear the evening is at a close. Folks will have to wait to hear the pundits score the candidates' performance, though many continue their own debates as they pass by the theater's illuminated facade and slip into the darkened streets.
Based on the statements of those interviewed before, during and following the debates, it would seem opinions of the candidates were only solidified by tonight's discussion with neither campaign gaining nor losing ground among this audience.