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South Carolina debate: The view from the bleachers

By Soledad O'Brien and Rose Arce, CNN
updated 5:43 AM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
The South Carolina crowd was civil throughout Thursday's GOP presidential debate.
The South Carolina crowd was civil throughout Thursday's GOP presidential debate.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The South Carolina crowd was respectful throughout Thursday's GOP debate
  • Newt Gingrich drew applause for fiery response to question regarding ex-wife's allegations
  • Some attendees left the debate still undecided about who they will vote for in Saturday's primary

For coverage of the South Carolina primary, go to CNNPolitics.com or to the CNN apps or CNN mobile web site.

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN) -- On TV, you watch the body language of candidates and wait for the zingers that could tilt your vote a certain way. Or you can just get lost in the pomp of a hall bedazzled by star-spangled ribbons.

But behind the criss-crossed lighting and all the red, white and blue, there's a whole other show you don't see but hear.

As in baseball, debates have the equivalent of bleacher seats -- where the rows of party faithful and polite VIPs give way to the crowded rowdy. In the pale red seats where the South Carolina Stingrays will face off against the Greenville Road Warriors in a minor-league hockey game the next night, there are cheering sections of campaign guests -- one in each of 35 seats filled with volunteers, staff, friends and supporters.

They sit up high, arranged as a reverse of the four surviving candidates in the front. If Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney look straight ahead, they see supporters of Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. In front of Paul and Gingrich are the Romney and Santorum folks. With the bright lights, they're hard to see from the front, but they are not hard to hear.

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"Let's see how loud you can get," the stage manager tells them and all 2,000-plus begin to clap. Ruth Himpler, age 10, from Virginia, is among the clappers, smartly dressed and energized over her first debate.

"We really should stop online piracy," she says from the Santorum seats, expressing herself on an issue raised the week of the debate.

The front row includes seats given to the candidates, two seats each, mostly used for wives and kids they can see. Then, there are folding chairs on the floor where VIPs sit, along with people invited by the hosts, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and CNN. There are also plenty of Tea Party members, local undecideds and registered Republicans from other southern states selected to ask their questions.

There are only a very few Democrats among them who found a way in.

Blake Shannon, 18, sat with his twin brother and other teens wearing bow ties and blazers so they would look like "southern gentlemen." He was hoping for a discussion of fiscal issues.

Moderator John King asks the crowd to respect the candidates, but "we know you will because it's South Carolina," he says to polite applause.

He opened by offering Ne wt Gingrich a chance to respond to his allegations from his ex-wife in an interview on ABC. Gingrich delivers a flat "No" and the segmented crowd becomes uniform in its applause as Gingrich attacked the media.

Three of the sections -- Paul's, Gingrich's and Santorum's -- thunder every time someone mentions Mitt Romney's record on taxes. Paul gets similar unanimity when he attacks the media.

But the response from the bleachers is not thoroughly loyal. "So much of what he said was wrong...," quips Gingrich of Romney and that sends chuckles through the Paul crowd.

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The Paul folks even managed to get heard when King tried to move away from an question about abortion without asking Paul.

"He's a doctor," yelled a woman from his section and King opened the floor to Paul. Though Santorum's crowd reserved almost all of its applause for its candidate, it did put its hands together for every attack on President Barack Obama.

"I didn't get the biggest applause here, but I'm steady and I'm solid," Santorum said from the stage at one point.

Nicholas Carden, who's studying law, and Brodie Hart, a college student, snagged some of the 1,500 to 1,800 tickets distributed by the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in hopes of seeing a potential Republican presidential candidate up close. Both are Republicans; neither knows who they will vote for on Saturday, though they agree Gingrich gave the best performance.

"Some of the things he says are crowd-pleasers," Carden said. "But they won't necessarily get him elected."

Heart chuckled at Gingrich's one-liners, but admitted he can't cement a decision.

"I understand and appreciate him, but it's not necessarily how I will vote," he said.

Audience members have punctuated the air during each of these 17 debates with boos and laughter and clapping, an echo chamber for the back-and-forth on the stage. The booing was particularly raucous during the contentious exchanges between Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich in another debate earlier this week and the crowd raised its voice Thursday night.

Matt Dailey was sitting in the Romney section but wasn't totally sure who he would vote for. He wasn't sure how to read the applause. "I think it's just the humor of it," he said of Gingrich.

Fifth-grader Ruth Himpler had never been to a debate. Her analysis of the crowd reacting around her? "We didn't boo," she affirmed, declaring that being in the crowd made her want to go to another debate soon.

She hopes to be a governor someday. At least, they get to sit in the quieter section with the VIPs.

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