If you weren’t VIP enough to get inside the Norton Center to watch the debate in person or credentialed enough hang out with the media and pols in Spin Alley, the only place to be Thursday night for news and political junkies was in front of the MSNBC stage watching Chris Matthews play “Hardball.”
Philip Milburn of Lebanon came to Centre College to take in the debate spectacle. He strolled the accessible part of the campus, listened to music for a while in the festival area but ultimately found himself part of the cheering, jeering crowd waving signs and pressing close to the set in front of Crounse Hall as Matthews orchestrated his decidedly liberal talking heads television show.
“It’s hard to hear anything, but this is part of the action. This is the true debate atmosphere right here,” Milburn said. “It’s kind of like College Game Day in football, only it’s College Debate Day.”
Matthews conducted “Hardball” live on the air for three hours leading up to the debate. Most of the time, he and guests like former Republican National Committee Chairman Richard Steele, Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville, and Washington Post pundit Eugene Robinson had their backs to crowd as they opined on what Joe Biden and Paul Ryan needed to do to win the day.
But during downtime, Matthews turned and engaged the audience, bantering with fans and foes alike.
“Who’s the guy who keeps barking at me so unpleasantly? He’s giving me a headache,” Matthews asked about a man who had already been removed by MSNBC security for being a little too persistent with his cat calling. “Who is that guy? Tell him I’m coming out at 12:30. Maybe we could meet.”
Another man shouted out, “Coal saves Kentucky, Chris, coal saves Kentucky.”
When Matthews declined to get into that discussion, the man retorted, “You’re no Sean Hannity.”
With a sly smile, Matthews said, “That’s true,” and the crowd cheered.
The coal man was Mike Maston of Manchester, who said he’d rather be watching Hannity, Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and the other Fox News stars who were working and hanging out on the other side of the fence, inaccessible to the general public.
“I’m just really supporting coal in Eastern Kentucky. What I support, he’s against,” Maston said of Matthews. “But I like to hear their point of view. It’s all in good fun.”
Chad Buck came up from Andalusia, Ala., and getting an up close and personal look at Matthews and his “Hardball” regulars made the trip worthwhile.
“I’ve been watching MSNBC for 10 years now. I feel like I know them. I watch them every day,” said Buck, proudly pulling out his cell phone to show off pictures of himself with Steele, Robinson and Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post. “I really want to get one with Chris. That would really make my day.”
Boyle County Middle Schoolers Erin Moser, 12, and Casey Craiger, 13, were drawn to the buzz around the MSNBC set, even if all the talking points sailed a bit over their heads.
“We’re doing our best to pay attention to what they’re saying, but being 13 years old, we don’t understand a lot of it,” Casey said. ‘It’s not very often we get to see something like this, so it’s just fun to be part of it. It’s an experience we may not ever get again, even when we are older.”