Yo, Paulies!

The YouTube debate was all Mitt, Mike and Rudy, but outside it was all Paul.

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click to enlarge GOD BLESS YOUTUBE: A 25-foot HDTV screen at the Mahaffey showed the various videos submitted for the presidential debate. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
GOD BLESS YOUTUBE: A 25-foot HDTV screen at the Mahaffey showed the various videos submitted for the presidential debate.

It's been only a week since the YouTube presidential debate in St. Petersburg, and already it seems like a lifetime. We're still waiting for the city to blow up in popularity, with waves of people moving here because of what they saw on TV.

Still. Waiting.

Which is to say almost nothing about St. Pete or Florida aired during the CNN debate, except for glimpses of the preternaturally grey Governor Charlie and the preternaturally tall Mayor Rick ambling out onto the Mahaffey Theatre stage for photo ops and introductions.

Creative Loafing sent five reporters to hang at all the rallies, straw polls, protests, fat-cat parties, the debate Spin Room and most of the major restrooms in the downtown area. Inside the debate hall it was all Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani; outside belonged to Ron Paul.

Here's what we saw and heard:

So many news conferences, so little time: Of course the Rays choose the worst possible day and time to unveil their taxpayer-financed field of dreams, a giant sailboat that would be built atop the current site of Al Lang Field for $450 million. The pretty blue-and-green yard signs touting majorleaguedowntown.com did battle with the omnipresent "Ron Paul for President" yard signs.

Across the street from the Rays' dog-and-pony show, homeless and peace activists lined the sidewalk with signs declaring "Drop taxes not bombs," and "Hey Mayor Baker, Jesus was homeless, too."

Between the Rays, the debate and the protests, there were more TV trucks in downtown St. Pete than you'd see in the aftermath of a hurricane.

Are you with Ron Paul? Walking around downtown St. Pete, we stopped several people to ask their opinions of the debates. But before we could get out our name and our affiliation, they all — every last one of them — asked:

"Are you with Ron Paul?"

Say what you want about the Republican from Texas; his supporters are seriously pimping the name recognition.

Good times, Charlie: Shortly after speaking with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Crist made his appearance in the spin room, where bloggers, YouTubers and journalists were to gather post-debate to hear a few candidates answer inane questions in entirely predictable ways.

Crist appeared quite pleased to host Florida's day in the Republican sun right in his little ol' hometown, and he pooh-poohed a question about the GOP stripping half of the state's convention delegates as "silly."

"Nobody's talking about it," he answered, "because it doesn't matter."

More interesting than his spin room quickie was his response to Blitzer about a new CNN poll that shows Hillary Clinton beating Rudy Giuliani in a hypothetical general election in Florida, 51 percent to 42 percent.

"This is fluid," he deflected. "We need to monitor what happens day by day."

Mitt Money: The vice chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party called at 7:12 p.m. to say that Mitt Romney had won the straw poll being held for $20 a vote over at Vinoy Park. Mitt bought the win; his supporters voted multiple times with Romney cash. Ron Paul came in second; nobody else got more than two dozen or so votes.

GOP organizers of the faux balloting had hoped that the winning candidate would mention their poll from the stage, claiming sweet victory. Nope.

Best pre-debate media question of the night: Tampa Tribune columnist Dan Ruth asked immigration-friendly, Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida a question concerning the virulently anti-immigration candidate Tom Tancredo: "Senator, would you be willing to serve in the cabinet of a Tancredo administration?"

More signs of Ron: Just before the start of the debate, the skies opened into a drenching rainfall. We could still hear the Ron Paul supporters as we splashed through the puddles, all the way back to Central Avenue and First Street.

Walking the streets of downtown Wednesday, you wouldn't have known anyone else but Paul was running. His signs outnumbered other candidates' by at least eight to one, from the handmade placards on the street to the decorated yachts and the two planes out by the Vinoy — one with a banner reading "Ron Paul for President 2008" and another with scrolling lights saying things like "Cheer for Ron Paul" and "Down with Hillary."

According to Matt Murphy, a Paul supporter, most of the signs weren't even paid for by the campaign. "People are shelling out their own cash for this," he said. "And the planes are from meet-up people."

Supporter Josh Columbia said that it's hard to choose a candidate this year because, like most years, there isn't a good choice. "Ron Paul is the best loser for 2008," he told us. But Murphy disagreed with him. "This is the first time it isn't a choice [between] the lesser of evils."

Live! from St. Petersburg! The debate began with GOP Chairman Jim Greer introducing Crist, who introduced all seven major Republican presidential candidates. CNN followed with a semi-witty YouTube video of an acoustic guitar-picker introducing the candidates again. Then Mitt and Rudy started whacking each other about coddling illegal immigrants.

Love, Fred: The first attack e-mail of the debate arrived at 8:24 p.m. The missive from Fred Thompson's campaign was headlined "REALITY CHECK: AS GOVERNOR, MITT ROMNEY ALLOWED SANCTUARY CITIES IN MASSACHUSETTS."

One minute later: Thompson's next e-mail whacked Huckabee's record on immigration.

The Paul Ball: Ron Paul supporters rented out the majestic Palladium Theater for their rally. The crowd of Paulies filled the Palladium's big room, with 40 or so more consigned to a downstairs overflow room. The debate was projected onto a big screen over the stage. Watching the debate in this environment was akin to participating in the most political episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever:

• No. 1 thing shouted at the screen (at all candidates but Paul): "Liar!"

• Funniest thing yelled at the screen: "Go back to TV you loser!" during Fred Thompson's first answer.

• At 8:15 p.m. people began shushing the most vocal supporters, as the debate was becoming impossible to hear.

• The crowd was mostly white, roughly 70 percent male, very young (although the full spectrum of ages was represented). We saw only one guy in a tie until the official campaign types started showing up just after 11 p.m.

• Number of guys in the crowd who had megaphones: Two. (Isn't it always a good time when someone in a crowd starts blaring a police siren from a megaphone?)

• Favorite T-shirts: "Ron Paul is the shit," and "The Government is trying to kill me."

• Best Dressed: Harry McKay of Tampa, who was wearing full colonial period costume and delivered Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech from the stage in the break between the end of the debate and Paul's arrival.

• Those assembled didn't much care for the Federal Reserve.

• Paul didn't get a question until 8:31 p.m. on the "conspiracy" to form a North American Union. Not surprisingly, the crowd loved his answer.

General hysteria: What seemed to be the biggest news about the debate had nothing to do with the candidates or the issues. It was the Republican blogosphere once again backing the mainstream media into a corner and obscuring its candidates' weaknesses on some issues. This time it was over CNN's sloppy vetting of the YouTube questioners, allowing a gay retired Army general to ask the candidates why they don't believe that gays can serve openly in the military.

By the end of the evening, it was revealed that Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, although a member of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, was listed as a member of a Hillary Clinton campaign advisory committee. CNN issued an apology and said if they had known they wouldn't have used the video question.

That's too bad, because it was a great question and one that shouldn't have resulted in any consternation among Republican candidates playing to a mostly anti-gay rights primary electorate. They all emerged unscathed except for Mitt Romney, who supported gay marriage when he was governor of Massachusetts. Lost in the Clinton flap was this exchange between CNN moderator Anderson Cooper and Romney:

COOPER: Governor Romney, you said in 1994 that you looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve, and I quote, "openly and honestly in our nation's military." Do you stand by that?

ROMNEY: This isn't that time. This is not that time. We're in the middle of a war. The people who have ...

COOPER: Do you look forward to that time, though, one day?

ROMNEY: I'm going to listen to the people who run the military to see what the circumstances are like. And my view is that, at this stage, this is not the time for us to make that kind of ...

COOPER: Is that a change in your position?

ROMNEY: Yes, I didn't think it would work. I didn't think "don't ask/don't tell" would work. That was my — I didn't think that would work. I thought that was a policy, when I heard about it, I laughed. I said that doesn't make any sense to me. And you know what? It's been there now for, what, 15 years? It seems to have worked.

COOPER: So, just so I'm clear, at this point, do you still look forward to a day when gays can serve openly in the military or no longer?

ROMNEY: I look forward to hearing from the military exactly what they believe is the right way to have the right kind of cohesion and support in our troops and I listen to what they have to say. (AUDIENCE BOOING)

Over at Pioneer Park: Mike Fox, one of the many organizers of the Rise Up! The System is Broken demonstration, had a few comments as he packed up his signs at the end of the evening.

"I think it went fabulously," said Fox about the gathering of 150 that brought together 30 different progressive organizations. "Even though you had divergent views, everybody seemed respectful of each other. ... Community was built today."

Ron Paul, Part 4: Back at the Palladium, Paul arrived at 11:35 p.m. to a rock-star welcome with his granddaughter in tow. We kept asking people what they were going to do after the meet-up ended. Everyone said the same thing: "I'm goin' home. I gotta work tomorrow!"

If this event was in any way indicative of what the election season will be like, we should be in for a very entertaining 2008.

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