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The media circus in Simi Valley

·West Coast Correspondent
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SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—The only thing more surreal than watching 15 Republican presidential wannabes snipe, swipe and shout at each other Wednesday night on live TV was watching them do it in person at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in parched Southern California.

OK — “in person” is a bit of a stretch. As one of more than 800 journalists who traveled from across the country and around the world to cover the CNN debate, I actually watched it from a hangar-like tent about 75 feet away from the hall where the action was taking place. And I watched it on a TV tuned to CNN — one of 16 screens positioned throughout the press tent — much like the 25 million viewers watching at home.

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Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Chris Christie take the stage during the presidential debate on Wednesday. (Photo: Chris Carlson/AP)

To be honest, “watched” is a stretch as well. Every time I glanced around the room, fewer than 10 percent of my fellow reporters were looking up at the TVs. The rest were staring down at their laptops or their iPhones — refreshing their Twitter feeds, prewriting their stories or messaging their editors back in New York or Washington, D.C.

In short, 800 journalists and media personalities paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the privilege of experiencing the debate much the same way they would experience it at home, only together in a tent. And many of them would readily admit, when asked, that the entire exercise, while essential for candidates looking to stand out, is becoming increasingly pointless for the reporters on the scene.

“It’s very rare that something useful comes out of this,” I overheard ABC News political director Rick Klein telling another reporter, who was filming him. Klein was standing in the so-called spin room, where the politicians and their posses gather after the event to say “we won tonight” over and over in various different ways.

“Yet we’re all here,” Klein continued. “It’s part of the tradition.”

“Why bother in an era when the real post-debate conversation is taking place on Twitter and Facebook anyway?” the other reporter asked.

“We do it,” Klein confessed, “because we don’t know what else to do.”

And so, because I didn’t know what else to do, I fortified myself with a tuna melt from Reagan’s Country Café, where visitors can dine under a lovely photograph of the Gipper holding a saddle. From the patio, I took one last look at the stunning, shining-city-on-a-hill view of the valley’s sun-bleached hills. And then I walked into the circus.

***

“There is electricity here, you gotta admit!” I heard Wolf Blitzer bellowing on screen.

“There is,” Anderson Cooper replied. He didn’t look as excited as Blitzer.

“OK,” one young reporter said to another. “I’m going to go sit at my laptop and pretend there’s a reason I’m here.”

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Journalists, candidates and their representatives crowd the spin room following the CNN Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The undercard debate was about to begin. On screen, CNN cut away to correspondent Sara Murray standing outside of a door. Behind the door, she promised, were the four men about to do battle: Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Bobby Jindal.

“And we are still awaiting the arrival of Donald Trump,” Murray added.

At the Reagan Library, all roads seemed to lead back to Trump. This was obviously true on stage, whether or not Trump was actually present; the first four questions of the JV debate were all about The Donald.

But it was also true behind the scenes. As Graham, Santorum, Pataki and Jindal jousted in the debate hall, a Radio France reporter stood in the middle of the so-called spin room, speaking into his cellphone in French. I could only make out a single word: “Trump.” Nearby, a trio of bearded, beflanneled dudes from Funny or Die cornered former American Idol runner-up and North Carolina congressional candidate Clay Aiken, resplendent in a slick gray suit and bright-blue tie, to ask him, on camera, about his experience as a contestant on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.

“Can we say ‘f***?’” Aiken asked his interlocutors.

“Sure!” they said.

“Trump promised me a check for finishing in second place,” Aiken said. “I never saw that check. So I’ve come here specifically to ask him where the f*** that check is.”

“Donald Trump doesn’t keep his promises?” one of the guys yelped.

Aiken shook his head no.

Apparently they were joking about something.

Even after the first debate, as cameras and boom mics encircled Graham, Santorum, Pataki and Jindal in the spin room, the focus remained firmly on Trump.

“We already have a celebrity president in the White House,” I heard Jindal say in response to yet another Trump question. “What we need is a conservative.”

A few feet away, Louis Aguirre of CBS’ The Insider was introducing a segment— or at least attempting to.

“But is Trump ready to be president?” Aguirre said to the camera, his white dress shirt unbuttoned to his sternum. “Or has being a celebrity completely the changed the game?”

“Not ‘changed the game,’” his producer interrupted.

“What am I saying here?” Aguirre sighed.

“Has being a celebrity overshadowed the process.” Aguirre started in again, but his producer quickly cut him off. “And remember: You’re at the Reagan Library.”

I spotted Chris Matthews across the room. “Trump is very good at defense,” the MSNBC host was telling a reporter from TVC Mas Latino. “It’s an old military rule. Let the other person attack, and then smack him.”

I decided it was time to return to the press tent. Near the door, Steph Bauer from Access Hollywood was doing her live shot.

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George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham shake hands at the conclusion of the CNN Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

“I just talked to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who summed up what we’re all thinking,” Bauer cooed into the camera. “As long as Trump is here, we’re all entertained.”

The cameraman lowered his lens.

“It’s three hours until Trump comes to the spin room,” he said. “So we can go back to our staging area.”

***

On Tuesday, I wrote that the reason Trump is leading the GOP polls, at least so far, is that he disrespects politics. He disrespects the process. He disrespects the rhetoric. He disrespects his fellow candidates.

His fans love that, because they really, really disrespect politics, too.

The political press isn’t all that different. Reporters don’t disrespect politics, exactly, but they are cynical about it. The focus groups. The consultants. The stilted, corporate, inorganic quality of the whole rigmarole.

One of the reasons Trump attracts so much media attention — beyond just being a celebrity — is that he promises to upend those conventions. Reporters already know what most candidates are going to say before they say it. But you never quite know with Trump, and that makes him a lot more fun to cover.

For the first few minutes of the primetime debate, Trump delivered on that promise. He bobbed and weaved, and we were all entertained.

“First of all, Rand Paul should not even been on this stage,” Trump snapped, seemingly out of nowhere. “He’s number 11.”

The press tent cracked up.

“I never attacked him on his look,” Trump added. “And, believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter there.”

The press tent cracked up again.

But then a funny thing happened. Around the 50-minute mark. CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina a question — a question that, like so many others Wednesday night, was supposed to provoke an onstage spat between two particular candidates.

“In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you,” Tapper told Fiorina. “Quote, ‘Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?’ Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona.”

Fiorina narrowed her eyes. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she told Tapper. And then she went silent.

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Carly Fiorina speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The crowd roared. In the press tent, fingers began furiously clacking on keyboards.

Trump tried to recover. “I think she’s got a beautiful face,” he sputtered, further proving Fiorina’s point. “And I think she’s a beautiful woman.” But that was that.

“Carly just won this thing,” I heard someone say.

“That was the line of the night,” someone else replied.

When covering presidential debates — especially West Coast debates — reporters work under very tight deadlines. Editors back East want to go to bed. And so reporters tend to seize on a new narrative the second it presents itself — especially if it presents itself near the beginning of the evening.

The tweets went out. The Donald was old news. Fiorina had clawed her way into the big show — and then she had trumped Trump.

In the spin room after the show, the rest of the candidates’ crews gamely did their duty.

“Even when Scott Walker wasn’t talking,” his senior advisor Robert O’Brien said, “his ideas were dominating the debate.”

“Some candidates, the more you see them, the more you like them,” said Mike Huckabee rep Tim Griffin. “Huckabee is that kind of candidate.”

“I think he did good,” said former Rep. Trent Lott, who had come to California on behalf of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “He was the adult in the debate.”

Eventually, the candidates themselves began to filter in, and the usual scrums formed around them.

But Carly Fiorina didn’t even bother to show up. She’d already had her say.

Interactive: Where the candidates stand on the issues >>>

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