The Second Debate: An Eyewitness Account, Plus the Best Follow-Up

“Hey, do you want a ticket to the debate?” When I got this text from a friend (a pal of

“Hey, do you want a ticket to the debate?” When I got this text from a friend (a pal of his who works for one of the presidential campaigns had an extra seat), I shot a two-word response: “Um, yeah!”

For a political junkie like me, being at the debate was the equivalent of – well, maybe not the Super Bowl, but a tightly contested playoff game. And since this debate was to be a town hall format, with an intimate audience arranged in a circle around the candidates, I was a little giddy imagining myself on TV in front of 60 million people. I put on a bright blue dress that my friends and family couldn’t miss on screen.

So after one train ride, one cab, one shuttle bus and a stroll through a metal detector, I entered the venue a couple hours ahead of the 9 p.m. start time (we were instructed to get there early), ready to settle into my seat a few feet from President Obama and Mitt Romney.

This is where I pictured myself sitting:

This is where I was sitting:

Yes, on television the debate looked like a cozy gathering. In reality, it was in a basketball arena. While 83 people were seated up close and personal, several thousand others were crowded into stadium-style seats that reached up to the rafters.

And though the debate had the trappings of a sports event – lights and barricades outside the entrance, an excited audience jammed into seats, scores of reporters bunched around the doors – it lacked a few key elements, namely:

• Refreshments: No food available in the venue.
• Pre-game entertainment: Music? Cheerleaders? A comedian to warm up the crowd? Nope.
• Casual attire: The whole crowd was in their business best.
• A comfortable climate: The temperature was arctic, presumably to keep the candidates from sweating under the blasts of light.
• Cheers and whoops: The audience was instructed to keep our opinions to ourselves (which we did – minus a few bursts of applause and chuckles).

Ninety minutes later – after face-offs on taxes, Libya, and binders of women – the debate ended, the house lights came up, and the audience started furiously snapping cell-phone photos (during the debate, devices had to be off ). Since a hand-shake with the candidates wasn’t happening (there was no path from the arena seats to the debate zone), I headed off to catch a ride back to the train station, looking forward hitting my couch and watching the replays. On TV.

As for the media follow-up, the President’s combative performance, a stunning turnaround from his wan effort in the first debate, had his supporters cheering.

Romney backers, not surprisingly, had a different take. Over at there’s an excellent  debate reality check; while Politico’s got Romney’s best lines and Obama’s best lines.

Top photo: Jim Young/Reuters

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest