Gathered to watch the debate are couple hundred people, a few of whom have been selected by the HLN to ask the candidates questions via a satellite link. A CNN truck sits outside, ready to beam the questions—and occasional shots of the enthusiastic yet well-behaved crowd—to Jacksonville, and, subsequently, to the world.
The audience is seated facing two huge screens, which show the CNN feed. The debate begins, and Wolf Blitzer, speaking to the camera, kicks things off: “Tonight! The final face-off before Florida voters choose!” Wolf sends it off to us, and we show up on the screen. Huge cheer from the crowd, which soon thereafter rises for a national anthem that, due to momentary technical difficulties, nobody can hear.
About twenty minutes into the debate, which begins with an extended exchange on illegal immigration and Mitt Romney’s odd non-solution of “self-deportation,” Wolf throws it to Miami and CNN Espanol correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez, who introduces Raquel Rodriguez, the first remote questioner. Her question concerns what America can or should do to engage Latin America and promote democracy. The response goes something like this:
Ron Paul: I think we’d be a lot better off trading with Cuba.
HLN crowd: “Boooo!”
Paul: “I think it’s time we had friendship and free trade with Cuba.”
CNN didn’t cut back to Rodriguez for a reaction shot, but if they had, they would’ve shown her being angry at Ron Paul. (Sitting in this crowd, you can understand why Paul has essentially chosen to skip Florida and focus his campaigning on other states.)
During the commercial break, some awkward networking occurs between two young media types sitting near me. The talk turns to the trail.
“How was the Univision forum?” one asks.
“Kinda pointless. They had us in the filing center, watching it on TV.” (This is true, though I seem to remember this guy enthusiastically enjoying the free sandwiches and soda.) “Then we went to the Freedom Tower thing”—an event hosted by a Cuban American PAC that wasn’t much better, though it did at least produce this.
The second guy continues, “That’s the thing about anything on the campaign trail… it’s of questionable value. But it’s fun! I’m in Miami.”
Almost an hour later, Blitzer returns to Miami for another question, from Korn, HLN’s executive director. She asks the candidates which Hispanic leaders they would consider as cabinet officials. Santorum knows an easy applause line when he sees it: “Your senator Marco Rubio is a pretty impressive guy,” he says, eliciting tremendous cheers. (These people love Marco Rubio. All you have to do is say his name and the crowd goes crazy.) Gingrich and Romney follow suit, naming various people whom they might appoint to their phantom cabinets; Ron Paul, as is his custom, refuses to take the bait: “I don’t have any particular names… my litmus test is Hispanics or other individuals who understand monetary policy.”
The last remote question comes from Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, dressed in a bright red suit and wearing a small Puerto Rican flag. She asks about the prospects of Puerto Rican statehood, and what the candidates might do to encourage trade between ports in Florida and Puerto Rico.
Santorum gives his answer, and he’s the only one to answer, and he really only answers the part about potential statehood. (It should be up to the Puerto Rican people, and also, Santorum is good friends with Puerto Rico governor Luis Fortuno.) Cuevas-Neunder walks away angry, and vocal about it. “He didn’t answer my question. He didn’t answer my question,” she insists.