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At The Philly Debate

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Message Stewart Nusbaumer

Outside Constitutional Convention Center on a grassy mall within sight of Independence Hall, where the U.S. Constitution was hammered out, Hillary Clinton is stomping Barack Obama. That is, the Clinton machine is stomping the Obama team. Ten times more Clinton supporters scream at least twenty times louder and the warm spring air pulsates, "Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!" (You don't need catchy chants when you're drowning out your competition.) The Clinton signs are larger and more and even more colorful. One enthusiast has a row of five signs tacked to a single long stick. A refreshment tent keeps the Clinton grunts' throats wet and strong while a folk singer lifts their spirits even higher. No doubt about it, Philadelphia's Arch Street on Independence Mall belongs to the Clinton gang.

And I suddenly I have a flashback to New Hampshire, a day or two before that state's primary, when Clinton volunteers were blanketing the Granite State and forced their way to victory. The prior week Obama had won the Iowa Cuscus, Clinton had come in a dismal third because John Edwards had squeezed past her for second place. In New Hampshire the pundits were saying if Clinton lost the first two contests, both the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary, she would be forced to withdrawal from the race. It was crunch time for the Clinton candidacy. And her organization flipped the switch and there was victory.

And on Super Tuesday, with twenty one states holding contests, again it was crunch time and the Clinton machine brought home victory. Then Super Tuesday II, she took both Ohio and Texas and the race continued. When show-time arrives, when its back is against the wall, when Obama is set to pounce on victory, the Clinton machine zips into every nook and cranny working the state and out comes victory. And today we have the "endless campaign."

With only one week before the Pennsylvania primary, the final large state primary before the Democratic Convention, again pundits are saying if Hillary losses the Keystone state, then she will be forced to drop out of the race. It's do-or-die again. And here in Philadelphia on Independence Mall the machine is roaring.

Small groups of journalists stand around the Filing Room on the third floor of the Constitution Convention Center, waiting for the Clinton-Obama debate to begin. "No doubt about it, Pennsylvania is crucial for Hillary," a plump journalist sucking on a Diet Coke says in a tone of finality, "Yeah, this debate is critical."

Yet, for journalists who have been on this brutal campaign trail since December, since the sheet-of-ice slide through Iowa, the words "crucial primary" simply rolls off our fogged-over minds, as does "critical debate." There have been too many "crucial primaries" to believe anything is crucial. And after 20 debates, we know this debate will have the same questions with the same answers and each candidate will know exactly what will be asked and know exactly what the other candidate will say. No, it's not a critical debate, and it will be as exciting as listening to a candidate's stale stump speech for the 100th time.

The numbed traveling media -- whether traveling "on the bus" with the candidate, or like me in my van as free-lancer -- are in one pitiful, exhausted state, yet are being pressed by fascistic editors to write something new and exciting. But what's new? Most will simply zero in on the candidates' styles, body language, a "gotcha you" sneak attack, any verbal gaffes, a "concession" that is supposed to be significant yet will be completely forgotten before the week is over, all stitched together by proper quotes. Some know no other type of writing, while others can't remember how they used to write.

It's a toxic mix of nothing new yet required to find something unique, bored stiff yet forced to write a stimulating article. It does not make for good journalism. Sometimes I think I'm wasting expensive gas roaring around the country chasing after campaign stories that don't exist, or that I can't catch up to. The endless campaign is not kind to our egos.

The Debate

"I should be president," Hillary Clinton says charging out of the debate's starting gate in response to the question of why she would be a better president than Obama, "because my positions are better."

In the Filing Room just about the debate hall, there are long tables and rows of wide-screen televisions where more than 650 journalists in varying degrees of consciousness watch the debate. Journalists are not allowed inside the auditorium. After all, you never know when a free-lancer may decide to set himself on fire. Or do something worse.

Obama is asked about the Reverend Wight controversy -- an elbow gently pokes my ribs. A heavy set journalist with curly hair says dryly, "Bosnia has to be next. He [Charles Gibson, the anchor for ABC News and moderator for this debate] has to come back with Bosnia."

I laugh, "Yeah, even the order of the questions are now predicable." "This is nonsense," he growls, his thick fingers fidgeting with a pad of paper.

Clinton is asked why she "misspoke" about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia and sprinting across the tarmac. Obama is asked -- but I'm off to fetch a dinner box at the other end of the room. The photographers, who generally consider the English language to be an alien form of communicating, and dangerous, hang around the drink and food tables stuffing themselves. In the rigid hierarchy of modern journalism, photographers are nearly as low as free-lancers.

The candidates' replies are smooth, like pieces of silk drunkenly floating down the sidewalk. There are a few verbal stumbles, mostly from Obama, but without any serious disasters. It's as if both candidates had stolen the test questions from the teacher's desk. Back in my seat with a tasty looking roast beef and provolone cheese, the room temperature suddenly rises. Eyes all around me turn into sharp spears. "This is the kind of manufactured issue," Obama is saying in response to why he doesn't wear a flap pin. An elbow taps to my ribs, "Watch, Wal-Mart will be next."

"If you lost a leg in Vietnam, is that as good as a flag pin?" I ask the elbow journalist. My stump twitches slightly, I'm not sure if it's laughing or growing. The elbow journalist is off in another universe.

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Stewart Nusbaumer is a journalist and writer. He is currently on the campaign trail writing a book on the "endless campaign." He has written for numerous print publications and online magazines.
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