Spirited Debates

Many rally around the tube with friends - and sometimes strangers - to toast democracy and watch the presidential candidates duke it out.

Election 2004

October 07, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

What: Debate watching party.

Where: Cockeysville

Info: We don't have a big-screen TV but we do have TiVo so guests can scream and swear without the worry of missing anything. In case there's a defining moment (such as "and you're no John Kennedy") we can watch it over and over again. - From a recent online posting for a debate-watch party

Imagine the possibilities: A crisp fall evening, a bottle of Yuengling, a spirited conversation about deficits and health care - all served with a large televised helping of John Kerry and George Bush. Or George Bush and John Kerry, depending on your persuasion.

During this election year, even undecided voters - especially undecided voters - can find people who would just love to have them over tomorrow night to watch Round 2 of the Presidential Debates from Washington University in St. Louis. Planning your evening is simply a matter of clicking onto any number of political Web sites to find a local party.

It's no wonder parties are forming around the debates: This presidential campaign has produced one of the most riveting versions of this periodic political spectacle. Last week, 62 million Americans tuned into the first debate in Miami, and political observers expect many to return to the sets tomorrow night. Partisan bars attract such loud support that televisions often run close-captioned text on the bottom, says Paul Herrnson, director of the Center of American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

"A lot of people really interested in politics will have some really inexpensive dates," he says.

Group dates, that is. This year, debate watching has become a way to connect with other folks who share your political goals - and gripes. Many folks are attending private parties, sometimes held by people they have never met, that are listed on political Web sites. Plugging in a ZIP Code on a presidential candidate's Web site produces a schedule of local events. Potential guests must fill out and e-mail a brief informational form before receiving a more precise invitation.

Republicans and Democrats have been tilling the soil of cyberspace ever since Howard Dean's campaign showed how Internet networking could increase popular support and financial contributions. Since mid-May, there have been approximately 30,000 house parties held to raise money and volunteers for John Kerry, according to a campaign spokeswoman. The Bush Web site lists 27,730 parties, but provides no time frame.

Three Kerry debate-watching parties are listed for the Baltimore metropolitan area tomorrow on the Kerry site; as of yesterday, none were listed on the Bush-Cheney site. Judging from a sampling of parties for the first debate, newbies will likely find the experience informal, friendly and memorable.

Last week, for the first debate, a group of 30, mostly middle-aged, Democrats gathered at the Roland Park home of Kerry supporters while a similarly sized group of mostly 20something Bush followers met at a Young Republicans' party in an apartment in Towson.

Advertised on the Internet, both events linked activists with political neophytes. Many guests at both parties had never attended a presidential debate-watching event.

In Roland Park, guests assembled around two inside televisions and one set up on the expansive front porch, fortifying themselves with cheese and crackers, wine and partisan chit-chat. When the candidates began to talk, however, the party-goers leaned toward the television, eager but anxious.

You could hear a chad drop.

Later, as Kerry seemed to chart a steady course through the questions, his followers relaxed a little more. But some couldn't resist a few Stage Mom-ish suggestions:

Don't shake your head, John!

The hosts were attorney Tom Dolina, who served as a John Edwards delegate to the Democratic Convention, and his wife, Joan, a child therapist and an artist. Most of their guests were work colleagues and neighbors, with a few Internet Kerry supporters thrown in. Wendy Rambo Shuford was one of them.

A 62-year-old nurse at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Shuford has attended Internet-advertised parties in Takoma Park and Federal Hill and raised $500 for the campaign by holding a convention-watching party at her home. She thoroughly enjoyed her first group debate-watch, she said, even though she had never met her hosts or any of their friends.

"It was great just cheering each other on and having similar reactions. Laughing together. Being proud of Kerry and mad at Kerry together. It's very affirming."

Across town, 30 or so Bush supporters sat in an arc around a television at a Young Republicans party in Hampton House.

"It's always nice to dialogue and network with like-minded people," said Jay Hartling, a teacher at Towson Catholic High School. "It can get pretty lonely as a Republican in Baltimore City."

Two new Baltimoreans also felt isolated in a stew of liberals. Derek Henry, 22, and his brother, Brett, 24, recently moved to town from Rugby, North Dakota.

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