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Watching the Palin Watchers

The eastbound traffic on Highway 264 was sprinkled with McCain/Palin bumper stickers as I wove through traffic on my way to Greenville, NC, Tuesday afternoon. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was to speak at East Carolina University, my alma mater. I wasn't going in order to see her speech, which was roughly the same one she delivered yesterday morning in Florida. I was heading there to watch the crowd and the media covering the event.

Minges Coliseum was the site of the speech. I wrangled a press credential for the event, along with fellow North Carolina blogger Lorie Byrd. The media were set up with the television press and photographers on an elevated platform directly across from the stage, but below the crowd gathered on the second level of stadium seating. Those of us in the local print media were packed into a section of the floor-level bleachers with unforgiving hard plastic seats amid a tangled jungle of snaking extension cords. I set up on the end of the row near the top of the bleachers. From there, I could oversee all of the press row set, from the tables set up in the front for the national media traveling with the campaign to the two small rows for local radio wedged in between our bleachers and the television media platform. I had an unobstructed view of the stage and the media.

Perfect.

As the crowd began to fill Minges, I recorded events as they happened.

5:42 PM The crowd has been filling steadily since at least 4:00 PM when I arrived, for a speech scheduled to begin at 7:05 PM. Lorie Byrd said people started arriving at 11:30 AM, and some in the SRO (standing room only) area in front of the stage came in at 3:30 PM. Security was reasonably tight at the media gate, with sniffer dogs to check out journalists' equipment bags, and the infamous "wand" to check them for metallic objects.

6:00 PM It is a full hour before Palin's speech, and the crowd is almost to capacity. The event schedule is already 15 minutes behind -- some sort of technical difficulties on the stage. Emcee Henry Hinton announces that Gov. Palin's plane just entered NC airspace. It appears she'll come straight from the airport to the stage. I hope she's prepped.

6:05 PM Local minister doing invocation, calls "other side" liars, prays "Lord God, shut their mouths." Ouch. He compares Palin to Esther in the Bible.

6:12 PM The crowd is fired up and loud. Very little foot traffic now; everyone with tickets must be in their seats. Minges seems packed as they load up an Elizabeth Dole campaign video. The media seems bored by the video. I am, too.

6:17 PM The local politicians do their version of a warm-up. State Senate candidate Preston is speaking, crowd is fired up in spite of, not because of, her speech, as Preston retells McCain's biography. Crowd starts chanting "Palin! Palin!" while shaking purple and gold (East Carolina school colors) pompoms.

6:22 PM Barack Obama is mentioned directly for the first time, and ritualistically booed.

6:25 PM State Senate candidate Louis Pate speaks. "I thank the organizers -- not the community organizers -- for the opportunity to be here." I saw my first Secret Service agent, talking into his wrist. He was conspicuous, but looked tough as nails. Looking around, it appears that the local media is bored, except for the -- from what I take to be -- high school journalists hunting and pecking away on their MacBooks.

6:37 PM North Carolina gubernatorial candidate and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is up next. They play his intro video, but we can't see it because of a huge American flag between us and the video screen across from us. He enters to loud music, and the crowd goes nuts. He panders to the ECU crowd, talking up the football team, which is always a good move. He points out that it takes a mayor to reform government -- referring to both Palin and himself (not a bit self-serving!) -- and seconds later says, "That's why a mayor should be the next governor of North Carolina!" The crowd response is good. The McCain/Palin traveling press isn't here; wonder if they'll get here and set up in time before Palin takes stage. "The culture of arrogance changes now in the state of North Carolina." He's a good speaker. Very polished. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of him in years to come. If he gets into the governor's mansion in November, I could see him running for the White House at some point.

6:40 PM First "Drill, baby, drill!" chant of the night. When McCrory mentions Beverly Purdue [NC Democratic gubernatorial candidate] saying she won't drill, she was heavily booed. McCrory plugs Elizabeth Dole's foundering Senate re-election campaign. McCrory concludes and gets a standing ovation as he walks off stage.

6:43 PM U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole speaks and, frankly, gets a better crowd response than I anticipated. Dole returns McCrory's compliments, plugs him for governor. She lists a couple of her recent accomplishments, but the crowd doesn't seem to know what she' talking about with the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] commission and something else ... something to do with a tobacco buy-out, I think. Greenville used to be a tobacco town but hasn't been in years, and the farmers Dole might have helped didn't apparently show up. She mentions a love for the military and her work with the Armed Services Committee, and gets the crowd back. Media photographers are starting to snap crowd pictures now -- that is the first time I've noticed that. Dole plays up a failed attempt by her, Hagel, and Sununu years ago to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. She ties her Senate opponent Kay Hagan to Chuck Schumer and the economic downturn, then claims that the New Yorker [Schumer] is trying to buy a NC Senate seat. The "bitter and clingy" yokels are not amused.

6:50 PM Ten minutes to game time. The traveling press isn't here. Is Palin? Dole pleads for support, funds in a tight race. "Nobama!" chant starts. She ends with "tell Chuck Schumer that no New Yorker is going to buy a NC Senate seat."

7:00 PM "Sarah! Sarah!" chant starts. Emcee Henry Hinton notes she's in a motorcade on the way, and says she's probably five minutes out (he's dreaming). They play a McCain video, which again, I can't see. The crowd I can see, and they seem as engaged as you can hope for considering they're watching a video at a political rally. The video recalls his Vietnam stories, including the "cross in the dirt story." Better not tell Andy Sullivan. He'll soil himself. Again.

7:08 PM I'm scanning the crowd for potential protesters. Nobody stands out. The only protester I've seen thus far was a solitary college kid standing on the street corner on the edge of campus near the football stadium, holding a sign that said "Sarah No" as he grooved to his iPod.

7:12 PM Emcee goes off-stage once more to check to see when Governor Palin might arrive.

7:25 PM U.S. Senator Richard Burr comes out. The crowd, expecting Palin, was slightly let down until they figure out he's introducing Palin. Goes for a "she's one of us" approach. Some local press start jockeying for position on risers beside me to take personal pictures. Either that, or the work cameras at some of the local news organizations are off-the-shelf and dinky ones like I have.

7:27 PM The traveling media stampedes in, laptops fired up and ready to go. Palin's motorcade must have arrived.

7:32 PM Palin comes out, and the crowd loves her. Warms up with "Sportstown, USA" and ECU' football's upsets over West Virginia and Virginia Tech... "you know something about underdogs." Mentions Biden: Biden gets booed. Good speech so far, steady, and well-delivered.

7:38 PM "Despite what Barack Obama says"... Boos, "Nobama!" McCain will give healthcare tax credits to help you pay for coverage. It's broadly the same speech that she gave this morning in Florida, but she seems to be feeding off the crowd -- giving off a lot of energy, considering how long her day has been. I can't make it out, but several of the traveling journalists have the same screens up on their laptops. I'm guessing that it is a copy of the speech, and they're making sure she's not going off script.

7:43 PM Looking down under the camera crew setup, I notice a scowl on the faces of a couple of crew members when Palin thanks the military. I hope that her comments weren't the cause of the dirty looks. One guy in the traveling crew packs up his laptop and leaves. I guess he's confident he won't hear anything new, and perhaps he's right as far as the speech goes, but what about the crowd? Don't they care about the crowd reaction? Apparently not.

7:48 PM Lots of press are checking their email and websurfing now, with the The Trail and Bloglines being two sites I can make out immediately. Several others are frantically typing away on Blackberries. When Palin gets to line about Obama starting his career in the living room of a domestic terrorist, crowd loves it. The media looks around briefly, then seems to lose interest in Palin.

7:53 PM Angry-looking, local female journalist in front of me is pounding on her keyboard. I could make out normal notes, plus a comment about Palin: "sounds like a robot, but the crowd loves her." Hmmm ... maybe it's you, ma'am? A few other media are now websurfing -- Yahoo News and the News and Observer's Under the Dome blog.

7:56 PM MSBNC's First Read joins the reading list. Somebody else is on a site with a color scheme and layout that looks suspiciously like the Huffington Post. An Asian man -- presumably a journalist -- looks at the crowd with an arched eyebrow, but I don't know why. I heard him speak later to his companion, but can't make out the language.

7:58 PM The speech is now over, and Palin walks down into the crowd to shake hands with folks on the floor. Shania Twain's She's Not Just a Pretty Face plays her off. Nice touch.

There were no protests or hecklers.

"Watching the watchers" is an interesting game to play. The media is used to being the ones deciding the story, but they don't want to be the story themselves. I expected some of what I saw last night -- the taking of phone calls during speeches and the sometimes fevered text messaging during the speech -- but I must tell you I was surprised when some of the press simply stopped paying attention shortly after Palin made the Obama-Bill Ayers connection in the speech. They appeared to have been waiting for another "gotcha" moment, hoping for someone in the crowd to threaten Obama or call him a terrorist.

Some of the web surfing during the speech was no doubt legitimate. I suspect both MSNBC's First Read and Washington Post's The Trail were being updated from the press row, and the authors were merely checking to make sure that what they posted came across correctly. The journalist reading Bloglines , a news feed aggregator, may have also been doing precisely what he should. But the Huffington Post?

At least it wasn't Kos.

But the guy who packed up and left the press row after Palin got past the Obama-Ayers connection when he didn't hear anything inflammatory from the crowd was a point of concern. So was the fact that so many journalists in front of me -- perhaps a third of them, or even a little more -- simply began tuning Palin and the crowd out after that point.

I understand the life on the campaign trail must be a grueling marathon of unending travel and 14-hour days. It has to wear everyone down, and people start to cut corners. The press allows themselves this as long as they get the broad strokes correct enough.

It does seem hypocritical, though, that these same frayed journalists then attack politicians on the same schedule, for even the smallest gaffe.

It's a clear double standard.

But then, we're getting used to that.