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Audience turns political debate into rousing spectator sport

A debate between N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and his challenger Jane Hipps, D-Waynesville, last week was lively, testy, heated, fiery and passionate — and that’s just talking about the audience.

Despite ground rules laid down by the moderator at the start of the debate expressly prohibiting cheering and jeering alike, the electrified audience had the air of spectators at a sporting event. With a crowd of 300 strong, it was a better turn out than expected for the third and final debate in the inaugural debate series hosted by the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute and political science department.

The energy manifested early in the evening, when low hisses and tsk-tsking followed Davis’ first few responses. After the moderator failed to keep the displays in check, Davis eventually called out the audience himself, referring to “those of you being disrespectful out there.” When it continued, he more pointedly asked them to stop.

“Whoever is hissing over there, you don’t do your candidate any favors. You aren’t showing any respect and you should just leave,” Davis said.

Davis showed the same willingness to chastise his own side when they booed Hipps later in the forum.

“Please,” Davis said, holding up his hand, palm out, toward the offending corner of the room, before turning back to Hipps.

But the agitated audience wasn’t willing to be quelled completely.

Carl Iobst, a conservative activist in the audience from Sylva, started chanting “cradle to grave, cradle to grave,” when Davis criticized the nanny-state philosophy.

Ed Morris of Franklin, who was wearing a Hipps sticker and pro-Democrat shirt, turned around and asked Iobst to be quiet. Iobst looked at him and replied “cradle to grave, it’s true.” Morris, who was right in front of Iobst, asked him again to please be quiet out of respect.

“No,” Iobst answered.

The forum was a lot like a wedding — supporters sat on the respective sides of their candidate. Davis’ side was a sea of Republican red, with Hipps’ side awash in Democrat blue.

But as the room filled, supporters were forced to break rank in search of seats.

One woman on the Republican side turned to a man wearing a Hipps button who had sat down behind her and said he belonged on the other side of the room, but he pointed out there were no chairs left on that side.

Spectators began arriving an hour before the start of the forum, and within half an hour from show time, the room was well on its way to being full. Those arriving too much later ended up in an overflow room.

Hipps’ campaign had set up in the lobby before the forum handing out free pizza and cake — including four-layer German chocolate — which was offered to anyone, despite party affiliation. It was not, however, an attempt at vote buying, the campaign said, although free pizza is known to go a long way with college kids.

In the countdown to the forum, the two candidates pressed flesh with their respective camps. At one point, Hipps left the room for a couple minutes, perhaps for a bathroom break before the debate started, and was greeted with a standing ovation from her side of the room when she walked back in.

Not to be outdone, Davis’ supporters waited until he left the room and came back in, and echoed with a standing ovation of their own.

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