GOP debate draws diverse crowd


Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 11:55 p.m.

The Republicans are rarely viewed as the party of inclusion, but their presidential debate Thursday night brought together characters as diverse as Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists, firefighters who oppose Rudy Giuliani and a guy in a giant Earth costume.

The Republican debate in Boca Raton was in many ways a predictable affair. Held on the Florida Atlantic University campus, the event attracted a crowd of political operatives, special-interest groups and college kids who were excited to be witnessing a semi-historic event.

Republican officials attending the debate attached vast significance to the event, saying the candidate who won the debate could win Florida, the party nomination and the presidency.

"Whoever wins in Florida is headed down the yellow brick road to the White House," said Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

But many of the folks at the event seemed more enthusiastic about their dislike for a particular candidate than their support for any single one.

A group called Firefighters Against Giuliani rallied against the former New York mayor, while a van labeled the "Amnesty Express" rolled through in opposition to Arizona Sen. John McCain over his support for immigration reform.

Even the average people attending the debate spoke first about the candidate they didn't want to win and seemed somewhat ambivalent about the rest of the crop.

"Nobody's really grabbed me yet," said Zack Timmons, 22, a student at Indian River Community College. "I like each of them for different reasons - except Rudy."

David Dodson, 39, of Greenacres brought his 12-old-son, Derek, to the debate. David likes all the Republican candidates, except for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

And why did Derek come along?

"My mom told me I could be on the news," he said.

Others took their dislike to another level. Dave Caulket was on the Amnesty Express, which has been tailing the McCain campaign. He opposes McCain for his support of a plan that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

"Let's enforce the laws and they'll self-deport," he said.

Jimmy Riches, a New York firefighter, said he lost his firefighter son on Sept. 11, 2001, and gained a lung ailment that forced him off the job. He's spent his retirement not on the golf courses of Florida, but following the Giuliani campaign through the state.

"We feel it's an insult that he's running for president on the backs of the firefighters who died that day," Riches said.

Riches spoke from behind a chain-link fence that surrounded athletic fields set aside for protesters. Even flashing a political sign behind the area was a no-no, as two students holding a Barack Obama sign behind a live television broadcast found out.

"It's OK - we got to see ourselves once on TV," said one of the students as a police officer escorted her away.

The supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul tried as hard as possible to ignore this edict, marching around campus in a cat-and-mouse game with the cops. The group was an unlikely lot for a Republican candidate: young, anti-war and not particularly fond of the law.

Chico Ramon, 28, of Palm Beach marched in a Guy Fawkes mask from the movie "V for Vendetta" and wore a black tank top that exposed his tattooed arms. He said a marijuana arrest that caused him to lose the right to own a gun led him to get involved in politics.

"I never really voted before," he said, "but there's a conspiracy against the people. I see it as a war against the people."

Across the street, three young men passed out DVDs about a supposed conspiracy around the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Jordan Hitches, 23, of Deerfield Beach said they received a positive reception - as judged by the fact that they weren't beaten up.

"You go out there and you think it's going to be trouble - that people are going to get out of their cars and punch you in the face," he said.

Others had more ambitious goals and mainstream causes. But even they had their quirks.

Lonny Smith calls himself Earth Man, a fitting name for someone who walks around in a globe costume. He said he's trying to get more attention for global warming and the possibility of its devastating effects in South Florida.

"The focus of what we're trying to do is send a message to candidates to raise the dialogue on sea level rise," he said.

Steve Wilson is with One.org, the group founded by U2 singer Bono that is trying to raise awareness of global poverty. Group members have been in 800 town hall meetings, he said, asking candidates questions about the issue.

"We know this is not going to be the No. 1 issue on people's minds, but we want the candidates to be thinking about it," he said.

Frank Fini, 68, of Tamarac walked the campus streets with a sign around his neck that read "Social change without violence." The hair stylist is trying to get the candidates to adopt an idea that he thinks can change the country: a $5,000 investment given to each child at birth.

He said the idea makes more sense than a lot of ways people spend their money.

"People leave millions of dollars to cats and dogs and relatives they don't even care for," he said.

In the end, two young women who were debate volunteers might have summed it up.

As they held doors open for the debate hall, they shared their thoughts about the whole affair.

"Politics is so weird," one said.

"I'm more into what's really going on," replied the other.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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