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Across The Country, Fascination And Indifference On Debate Night

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump acknowledge their debate audience Monday night at Hofstra University. Tens of millions more were watching in audiences gathered elsewhere.
Joe Raedle
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump acknowledge their debate audience Monday night at Hofstra University. Tens of millions more were watching in audiences gathered elsewhere.

They congregated in VFW halls and sports bars, private homes and the back rooms of restaurants — Americans gathered to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally go toe to toe.

Or to see how the Atlanta Falcons fared against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.

One contest or the other, the seductive glow of large flat panels drew more than the usual contingent of moths to their Monday night flames.

The Clinton crowd

At the Hi Tops bar in San Francisco, a crowd of about 100 Democrats toted a Skittles-filled Trump piñata upstairs to help them root on the former secretary of state. Equal parts gay and straight, male and female, the predominately college-educated, professional crowd was both animated and anxious.

This politically savvy group was all too aware that the latest polls show Clinton and Trump in a statistical tie. Their candidate's commanding lead has evaporated like a half-inch-deep puddle in the Texas heat, and the possibility of a Trump victory, once a joke, is no longer funny.

As they relaxed in their work clothes, drinks in hand, waiting for the debate to begin, the yearning for Clinton to do well flowed through these 30- and 40-somethings like Democratic addicts needing an Obama fix. But those halcyon days of campaign superstardom are over. And it's making everyone here nervous.

The Trump crowd

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6158 in Fair Oaks, outside Sacramento, Calif., a boisterous and confident collection of Trump supporters brought food and drinks and their growing confidence that their man is winning. This was an older crowd, nearly all white and devoted Republicans. They never liked the current president, and they feel exactly the same about his would-be Democratic successor.

Polling shows a sizable contingent of Trump supporters will vote for him mainly out of disdain for and distrust of his opponent. That's certainly not true here.

Marlene McHale explained she's voting for Trump because "I just like that he's going to protect the country. He's going to make the country safe. He's going to get in there and he's going to put a wall up and he's going to screen everyone that comes in that's illegal, and we have to have that."

As Hillary Clinton walked out onto the debate stage, the roar of catcalls at Post 6158 was so loud, poor Lester Holt had no chance. The moderator's mouth continued moving but ...

From Left Coast to the Adirondacks

Fly across the continent at the speed of light, and we're in upstate New York — the military burg of Watertown, neighbor to the U.S. Army's Fort Drum — on a cold and rainy night. It's the very first taste of what is sure to be a long winter, and whether it's the bar downtown or the French restaurant next door, the collection of fans, both football and political, was small.

At Bistro 108, a dozen Republican politicians and their staffs had dinner and prepared to watch history in the making. The restaurant is closed on Mondays but tonight made an exception. Sandra Beach, a Bistro regular, says she wanted to watch Trump "squish" Clinton.

"This is probably one of the biggest presidential debates ever," Beach says. "This is going to turn the country one way or another."

The young and indifferent

South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Nashville, Tenn., a dozen Young Republicans gathered in the industrial-chic INK Building for an informal debate-night "kick back." These so-called millennials, though Republican in name, were not Trump's biggest fans.

Joshua Rawlings, the 23-year-old organizer of the group, came wearing a "Feel the Johnson" T-shirt in reference to Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

"Just to be brutally honest, I think a lot of my friends are not really involved at all," Rawlings confesses, "so I'm kind of dragging them in and using booze as an incentive. Trying to enjoy some comedy."

The aging boomers on the debate stage seemed about as relevant to these youngsters' world as a Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin film extravaganza. Perhaps good for a couple of laughs, but that was the limit of their expectations.

Reporting was contributed by Marisa Lagos and Katie Orr of member station KQED; Nicole Nixon of member station KUER; Julia Botero of member station WRVO Public Media and North Country Public Radio; and Chas Sisk of member station WPLN.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.