9:08 am Oct. 17, 2012
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—"I enter New York City the same as I would enter the D.M.Z. in Vietnam, with much trepidation and caution," said Jim Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and Mitt Romney die-hard, who has logged hundreds of thousands of miles following his preferred candidate across the country.
"I do not understand that environment. I do not feel comfortable there, and yes, I do carry a knife. They throw vegetables at the truck."
Wilson, in shorts and knee-high white socks, was smoking a pipe and already packing up his white Chevy Silverado for the next journey, even before Tuesday night's presidential debate had officially begun. He said he had driven through Manhattan, but scoffed at the idea he might have stopped off on his way to Hempstead.
"Kiss my ass, I didn't stop in that dump," he said. "I thought one time when the traffic was backed up, which it always is, I saw an American there. Turns out he was Jamaican with a white mask on."
Much was made of the presidential debates straying to a non-swing state, but the version of New York presented to the hundreds of visitors and press was a particular slice of Long Island, the hermetically sealed campus of Hofstra University, not at all the "dump" Wilson fears so much.
A couple dozen police officers greeted passengers who disembarked from the Long Island Rail Road, and a bus driver for the "Blue Beetle" shuttle to campus turned away non-credentialed passengers with military disregard, including a late-arriving journalist from Amsterdam. The drive to Hofstra was a straight shot, with the side streets barricaded to cross traffic, but even the Beetle got a hard time from police about where it was headed.
On the campus, there were no protesters or rabble-rousers—the Green Party candidate was arrested for trying to enter the campus—and outside of the credentials-only "debate perimeter," anyone over 25 was conspicuous.
Students swarmed around an MSNBC set near the student center, where the cafeteria was decorated with homemade banners for a Freaky Formal and a "Paw Pals" groups, and six signs for different sorority "round robins." One student handed out the campus comedy magazine, called Nonsense Humor, and an overweight kid wore a shirt that said: "I'M FAT / LET'S PARTY."
There were lots of cheap, red-and-white blue top hats, in the style of Uncle Sam.
An MSNBC logo shined ten stories up on the brick facade of a dormitory, and the network was giving out free coffee under a tent that said "YOU ARE BEING PHOTOGRAPHED."
The organizers had done their best to embrace the suburban location, with all the questions coming from Nassau County residents, trusting that the concerns of the county could be extrapolated for the benefit of all Americans.
On Monday, Rep. Peter King told me he hoped the debate would touch on some local issues, like property taxes and transportation.
It made it as far as immigration and, more surprisingly, gun control. (The candidates didn't say much about guns except that it's better to have involved parents.)
Sometimes the county's concerns were surprisingly broad.
"We were sitting around talking about Libya," said a man who introduced himself as working for Global Telecom Supply in Mineola, "and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security, and why?"
The president was clearly ready for the question, and Romney seemed ready to pounce too, accusing the president of not calling the attack a terrorist act, which drew a clarification from the moderator, Candy Crowley.
After it was over, the students decked out in Romney gear, of which there were a surprising number, proclaimed a cautious victory, though it was clear the high wasn't quite as pronounced as in Denver last week.
"I thought Romney did a little better over all," said James Pustorino, an 18-year-old freshman from Seaford, who had a Romney button, pin, and sticker on his red flannel. "I was nervous they were going to get into a fist fight."
"The president definitely did some debate prep this week, the last six or seven days," said Sean Rogan, a recent alumnus who still lives nearby and was carrying an armful of Romney signs. "I think he took a page out of the Biden book every once in a while too."
The public relations guru of Long Island, Robert Zimmerman, who doubles as a Democratic bundler, was hustling from the debate hall to the university club.
"Romney choked on his own snake oil," he said merrily.
On the MSNBC set, Matthews was loudly proclaiming victory.
"He won on the economy right up front; the oil thing was too complicated; he won on taxes; he won on Lilly Ledbetter, clearly; he won with that African-American guy who has really been disappointed—he won with that guy!—he won clearly on immigration; and he clearly won with the question at the end, where he took that foolish decision by his opponent to raise the issue of 47 percent by saying 100 percent; he stuck his chin out and Obama punched him hard!" he said, to loud cheers from dozens of students who were crowded behind him waving signs.
One security officer stationed next to the set had figured out a way to tune out the hours of bloviating.
"I just look at all the girls," he said.