By Karin Caifa in Austin, TX
No offense to the fine faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, but it's doubtful they could ever captivate a student body like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did Thursday night.
It was so quiet in the campus recreation center - the "Rec" -- Thursday night, as the two Democratic candidates responded to various questions from CNN and Univision moderators, that you could hear a pin drop. Or the click of a high-heeled shoe meeting the hardwood floor.
Yeah, that was me. Sorry.
Surprisingly, I attracted the annoyed glances of only a few folks in the bleachers that made up the far reaches of this impromptu debate hall. The rest were sitting in rapt attention of the two Democratic contenders. Nothing was going to pry their eyes from history. And in a gym, no less.
Despite the cameras flying around on jibs, the elaborate lighting, and the now-familiar CNN debate set consisting of interchangeable cubes, the hardwood floor reminded me of where I really was. As did the scoreboards mounted high above the bleachers, darkened for this event, that read "Texas" and "Guest" but could just as easily have read "Clinton" and "Obama."
In this venue intended more for the dramatic slam dunks of NCAA hoopsters than the shots of two candidates jockeying for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was interesting to take a look around at the people you don't often see during these televised debates: the audience. The focus is so great on the candidates that you don't get much of a chance to observe how people, -- more appropriately -- voters, respond.
On TV, you heard the ripples of polite applause, the occasional whoop, and even a small smattering of boos. But inside the confines of the Rec, I watched the faces of these folks during a segment of the debate on touching on the candidates' plans for the U.S. economy. There were campus ROTC cadets listening intently to talk about oil prices, linked closely to U.S. activities in the Middle East. A campus security guard who looked to be post-college but still in his 20's was on duty, but clearly focused on the democracy in action around him. A young college-aged woman listened with arms crossed as Clinton responded but uncrossed them and leaned in toward the stage as Obama spoke.
I also saw a gymnasium full of Texas voters that mirrored the latest polls in this March 4th primary state. It's a dead heat between Obama and Clinton now, and Thursday night's audience seemed split right down the middle, too. Half used their polite applause to punctuate the statements of the senator from Illinois, while the other half responded to his colleague from New York.
When I turned to leave I clicked my heels on the hardwood floor again. A stern look from a student perched on a bleacher above was enough to make me quickly switch to creeping on my tiptoes. I wasn't about to let my style drown out substance, especially when folks are picking a president.