Local debate viewers cheer, jeer, drink beer
JANESVILLE Before the vice-presidential debate even started Thursday night, there was standing room only at a viewing party at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Janesville.
As people found seats or places along the wall of the crowded banquet hall, a jumbo screen tuned to Fox News flickered with images of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.
A gaggle of UW–Madison students carried in stacks of extra chairs and jostled past an older man who sipped a New Glarus beer from the cash bar.
"No way there's room for everybody who came," he said.
All told, more than 400 supporters of Janesville's Paul Ryan packed into the conference center for a viewing of the debate organized by local GOP groups.
Dozens watched the big screen from out in the foyer as the two veteran politicians squared off over questions on foreign policy, the U.S. economy and health care.
For 90 minutes, every time Biden stumbled on a word, tossed out an epithet such as "this is a bunch of stuff" or flashed his trademark Cheshire cat grin, the crowd hurled a chorus of jeering laughter.
Each time Ryan shot back an eye-twinkling retort or uttered a reference to Janesville, the room exploded in cheers.
That's the way it went on the east side of town.
Meanwhile, you could have heard a pin drop on the UAW Local 95 Hall floor every time Ryan said "Janesville."
The crowd of about 140 made it clear, however, that Biden would be welcome any time for a beer or munchies from the snack table.
When Biden grinned, the crowd cheered. They cracked up at his "bunch of malarkey" comment.
Ryan got his share of laughs, too. When he said Obama's foreign policy was "unraveling," you would have thought you'd walked into comedy night at the UAW Hall.
More often than not, Ryan got jeers from the room full of Rock County Democrats and a handful of Dems from state and national organizations. He touched a nerve when he called presidential candidate Mitt Romney "a car guy."
"A car guy, huh?" one man shouted from the back of the room.
At the Holiday Inn Conference Center, Ryan's supporters seemed to rise up in protection of the Janesville native. Viewers peppered the air with sour comments when Biden interrupted Ryan mid-comment.
Rep Joe Knilans, R–Janesville, who was watching the debate from the foyer, said Ryan's performance was deft, but he thought Biden was doing the debate a disservice with his interruptions.
"It seems a little unfair," Knilans said "But Paul's doing well … He's doing well."
At the midpoint of the debate, Greg Roy of Janesville leaned up against a wall at the Holiday Inn Conference Center and shook his head, but not because he thought the debate was going poorly for Paul Ryan.
Roy said he thought Ryan was proving himself to be a nimble arguer. On the other hand, he thought Biden was glib and dismissive.
"Biden's really deflating the office of vice president tonight," Roy said. "He's pandering. He's not taking this seriously. It's clear Ryan's the technocrat here, and Biden's just not giving him the time of day. It's really sad."
Putting away chairs and brochures at the UAW Hall, Obama campaign volunteer Allycia Spenske of Janesville said the hometown crowd wasn't cheering for Ryan because he is not representative of the community.
"Paul Ryan sees this is a joke," she said. "It kind of bothers me."
She brought along a friend, Mandy Kalson of Beloit. Before Thursday's debate, Kalson said she was on the fence about the election.
She left convinced to vote for Obama and Biden, she said.
The scale-tipper was Biden's statement that the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. With a little brother about to leave for boot camp with the Marines, she didn't like Ryan's conditions on the end of the war, she said.
"I don't like that there's a 'but' in there," Kalson said.
When the debate ended, the crowd squeezed together for one last photo.
The photographer climbed on a chair and got everyone's attention.
"All right everybody," he said. "'Malarkey' on three!"