South Carolina Democratic debate: This is what you didn’t see on television

CHARLESTON, S.C. –The man walked up toward the metal barricade with his phone held outward, weaving through the flashing lights of parked emergency vehicles just moments after the Democratic debate began in the Gaillard Center Tuesday night in the heart of Charleston.

He got as close as he could to show the man on the other end his video chat.

Here are some shots of the scene, he said, pausing for a moment to show video of reporters huddled under tents, stern-faced guards at the entrances, a massive, elegantly lit sign reading #DemDebate on the lawn of the concert hall. 

The sight was just a sketch of the sidewalk show in the minutes and hours before. Supporters were performers in an orchestrated lead-in to seven Democratic presidential nominee hopefuls engaging in a battle of words and ideas broadcast to a global stage. 

There didn’t appear to be spontaneity like fiery exchanges between rival campaigns or with the Trump supporters who later appeared. They repeated chants, sang along to songs played through speakers. 

Carol Dunitz dressed as Uncle Same protests outside of the South Carolina Democratic debate in Charleston Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.

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The concert hall, which normally hosts orchestras and musical productions, echoed the formal tradition of the political debate. Attendees wore their Sunday best for this political theater, the final one before the South Carolina primary Saturday.

But outside the event, campaigners and advocates danced, high-fived, chanted. It felt more like a tailgate — if they just cheered more and louder, maybe their candidate would be the one to top the field tonight? 

They were also trying to create a viral moment, a photo or video clip that would maybe capture the attention of the media stationed there at numbers that, at some points, outnumbered the participants. Some appeared to be mischief-makers, like one man who stood with an “Epstein didn’t kill himself” poster behind a television live shot. 

Joe Biden supporters outside of the South Carolina Democratic debate in Charleston Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.

It was not unlike the candidates on stage: they aimed to make that shareable exchange, quip or jab. These were all choreographed, studied moves. Think Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s widely shared exchange with Michael Bloomberg at the introduction of the Nevada debate, a move repeated on Tuesday in an effort to dominate the news cycle the next day.

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Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in recent South Carolina polls, had the most representation. His supporters occupied the corner of the street there for hours. A truck emblazoned with Tom Steyer’s campaign drove by. So did a pickup truck with a President Donald Trump flag waving from the back. 

A dozen or so Trump supporters stood on the corner on the opposite side of the street. A few remained there, in the dark, after the debate began. A group of young men mocking Sanders supporters removed their “Bernie Bro” shirts and laminated signs reading “Pay off my credit card” to join the Trump loyalists.

The spectacle unfolded just blocks away from Mother Emanuel Church, the site of a 2015 mass shooting that prompted a discussion of gun laws during the debate. 

The hall also sits next to the Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood of downtown, defined by rows of quaint historic homes. As the sun set Tuesday, the residents there fulfilled their nightly routines. They walked the dog. They pushed strollers around the block. Some played video games or watched the latest Amazon prime show. 

Just a block away, sounds of a couple dozen chanting “Joe” faded. A fountain in a park was the only soundtrack. And the only visible sign of the campaign was a couple of Sen. Amy Klobuchar signs on a porch and in the window.

One young woman walked out of her house and onto her yard about an hour and a half before the debate. She held up her phone for a video chat. 

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She explained to the person watching that there was a big debate nearby. People were there with signs, she said.  

She wasn’t quite close enough to capture it all with the phone camera, she explained. 

She didn’t walk closer to the hoopla. She turned around and went back to her home.  

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