Beyond the typical political theater that we’ve all come to expect from presidential debates, last week's CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida struck a different chord with me.
I’ve attended and helped cover presidential debates in the past. But what really stands out about this one was the symbolism of a news organization – CNN – partnering with a grass roots organization – the Tea Party Express – to host the 2012 Republican presidential candidates.
This might sound like a cliché, but to me it underscored what is truly great about this country and it is representative of why I am thankful that I am a journalist during times like this. Say what you want about their politics, the Tea Party sprang from a few people with the desire to amplify the voice of a few so the nation would listen. To think that this grew into a movement where "real" people who had never been active participants in the political process before, now had an opportunity to challenge presidential candidates in front of a national audience on CNN. How cool is that? It’s democracy at its best.
I always enjoy covering these events because I have the opportunity to have informal conversations with several of the candidates. I am not a reporter so I find that the candidates and their press teams are able to relax more around me.
I met Herman Cain, who was a guest on American Morning during on the morning of the debate. He is quite a cool guy and commands presence as he walks a room like a movie star. Another guest on American Morning that day was Gov. Jon Huntsman. He seems like a proud father to me. In fact, I actually booked the interview with his 20-something-year-old daughter Abby. After taking a picture of Huntsman with my anchor Ali Velshi, he informed me that my iPhone cover case is the same as his 12-year old daughter’s. "It's a Kate Spade," he said like any proud father of a pre-teen would say.
Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign staff is highly organized and they operate their campaign like a business. During the debate the Romney campaign instantaneously blasted out prepared responses to claims and criticisms aimed at their candidate.
Rep. Michele Bachmann reminds me of President George W. Bush: very one-on-one, very engaged with people individually. Her team is always prepared in every way imaginable, arriving long before she does to scope out the interview site. Her entourage has grown since our New Hampshire debate and she is more closely protected.
Most important to me is the people I worked with behind the scenes that I want to highlight. CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi is not only fun to hang out with as a person, but it was beyond impressive to see how much information he could remember in so much detail and then organize those thoughts into provocative questions (and with no sleep) for a live interview. Senior Producer Chandra Whitt makes producing look like a walk in the park. It takes talent to make producing a live shot for an anchor during a live show in 90-degree weather look easy! And CNN’s political team doesn't stop doing what they do.
I’d like our viewers to know that when they watch, their passion for what they do is contagious. And I think I caught it.