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DAVID SKOLNICK \ Politics The debate: What didn't get on TV was more exciting



Published: Fri, September 8, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The gubernatorial debate between Democrat Ted Strickland and Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell had its entertaining moments, but most of them weren't shown on TV.

The campaigns had nearly complete control over the event including seating locations for the handful of people in the studio, the color of the drapes, how they were filmed and where they would hold their post-debate interviews.

I was the only reporter not on the panel interviewing the candidates to be permitted inside the studio, much to the chagrin of other journalists. [The candidates were kind enough to incorrectly blame the organizations that presented the debate, including The Vindicator, for keeping the media out.]

I almost didn't get in myself. The final hurdle was Gene Pierce, who handles debate planning for Blackwell's campaign and didn't want me there. But a good dose of guilt and complaining helped change his mind.

I arrived at WFMJ more than two hours before the debate started. When I got there, Strickland was standing at his lectern for a microphone/camera/lighting check.

Then came discussions about camera locations, where water would be placed next to the candidates and if the media panelists would get water at all.

There were 16 folding chairs in the audience with each candidate inviting eight guests to watch the debate from certain chairs. The candidates' wives got to sit in plush chairs not in the designated guest seating area.

I apparently made a mistake sitting in one of the 16 chairs and an even bigger mistake moving it about a foot to my right. The chair had to be moved back immediately because Strickland was entering from behind it to get to the podium and nothing could be in his way.

A few minutes later I was told I had to move and sit in one of the WFMJ anchor chairs. Because the anchor chair -- far more comfortable than the folding chairs -- was raised so high I correctly surmised it was Autumn Ziemba's.

As the "crowd" came in, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, one of Strickland's eight guests, sat in the chair of Bob Black, the station's other news anchor. Lucky for Ryan, the debate police didn't catch him or they would have made him sit with the other guests.

When Strickland walked past us, Ryan whispered to him, "You the man. You the man." Strickland smiled and put a white handkerchief, hopefully not a used one, in front of me. It was never retrieved.

One of the main rules of this debate was no cut-away shots to a candidate when the other was "answering" a question. When the camera was on Strickland, Blackwell had this plastic, goofy, phony smile, similar to the one a person would have when told to smile for a picture. I was told the Blackwell smile made it on the air as he did it immediately after finishing speaking several times. Blackwell showed how phony the smile was with a mean-spirited comment about Strickland at the end of the debate when asked about Jerry Springer.

During the debate, John Haseley, Strickland's campaign director, would occasionally raise a piece of paper with a smiley face on it. It either let Strickland know he answered a question well or that he needed to smile, hopefully not the same smile used by Blackwell. After the debate, Strickland told Haseley he couldn't see the smiley face paper because the TV lights were too bright.

I stayed in the studio as TV reporters from around the state were placed in lines to speak to the candidates one-on-one. Blackwell was on one side of the studio and Strickland was on the complete other side. Then the newspaper reporters were brought in at once to ask questions of Blackwell first and then Strickland.

When Blackwell spoke, Lee Fisher, Strickland's lieutenant gubernatorial running mate, listened and wrote notes. When Strickland spoke, four to five Blackwell campaign staffers listened to his comments and took notes.

It was a bizarre but amusing experience.




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