By Greg Kocher and Beth Musgrave
By Greg Kocher and Beth Musgrave — firstname.lastname@example.org
DANVILLE — Over the cries of a protester in a tree, a crowd of thousands at Centre College’s vice presidential debate festival listened intently to the broadcast of the debate on a large screen TV on the campus lawn.
Hearing the debate proved challenging as an anti-abortion protester shouted from up a tree on the edge of the festival lawn. He was still shouting nearly an hour into the debate, having climbed even higher to avoid law-enforcement agents who had put up a ladder. Police said they chose to leave the protester in the tree rather than risk his safety in trying to extricate him.
“Stop Obama! Support Romney! Over 50 million babies have been killed!” the man shouted.
Some in the large crowd at the base of the tree shouted “Tase him!”
Clarence Wyatt, Centre College’s debate co-chairman, said it was the only incident during the debate.
“This has been a glorious day, and nothing has changed that,” Wyatt said.
Spectators on the lawn seemed impressed with the opening salvos of the debate.
“He’s on his A-game,” said Berea College student Priscilla Easterling, 21, about Vice President Joe Biden. “He’s not just listening to what Ryan is saying and letting it go. He’s got good, sharp answers.”
Paul Smiley, 63, of Danville gave the edge to Ryan in the debate’s initial moments.
“I was happy to see that there appears to be some civility between the candidates,” Smiley said. “I give a slight nod to Ryan. I thought when answering the Benghazi question, not having a Marine presence in Benghazi, that sends a message to that whole (Middle East) region that we are demonstrating weakness.”
Centre spokesman Michael Strysick estimated the festival crowd at between 5,000 and 6,000 people. It was sponsored by AARP, the powerful lobbying organization for seniors.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of people sat in folding chairs or on the ground under a clear, sunny sky, listening to local musical acts.
Paul and Sue Guffey of Somerset, both wearing Obama/Biden buttons, basked in the sun amid temperatures in the 60s as they listened to music and waited for the debate.
“So far I’m impressed with the way it has been organized,” Paul Guffey said.
Della and Dave Scheurich of Danville sat closer to the stage. Della Scheurich said she thought it “was important for America to see Danville and Kentucky.”
“You always hear about California. You always hear about New York,” she said. “But you never hear about middle America and how middle America is the backbone of this country. The backbone of America is right here in Danville.”
The Scheurichs sported “Romney/Ryan” stickers on the backs of their folding chairs. They said everything was civil on the festival lawn.
“When you walk by somebody with opposing signage, they smile,” said Dave Scheurich, the retired general manager of Woodford Reserve distillery. “We’re not throwing rocks at each other.”
“Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but mine is the best,” Della Scheurich said.
Crowds of people also gathered behind MSNBC newscasters during their broadcasts from Centre Thursday afternoon. Among them was Madisan Miller, perched on Samantha Thompson’s shoulders so she could hold a Romney/Ryan campaign sign in view of cameras.
The two teenagers came with the Rockcastle County Teenage Republicans, who got permission from their school to use the debate as an educational field trip.
The group headed straight to the MSNBC mobile studio when they arrived.
“We’re going to stay as long as we can,” Hannah Eaton, a senior at Rockcastle County High School, said of Thursday’s activities.
The group sported political T-shirts that read “Can we really afford four more years?”
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 students participated online in a town-hall type forum sponsored by the Global Center for Connected Campuses, Centre and Connected Nation. More than 150 high school students participated in person at Centre.
Topics covered by the more than three-hour forum included the use of social media in political campaigns, the increased cost of college and environmental policies.
Nathan Shuler, a Centre student and member of the Centre College Democrats, told the forum that Facebook has been a powerful tool to mobilize people for the debate.
When Shuler appeared on an MSNBC program earlier in the day, he wanted to make sure there were plenty of Obama-Biden supporters in the crowd. He posted something on Facebook, and there was a big turnout.
“It’s a great way to mobilize,” Shuler said.
Caroline Anderegg, secretary of the Centre College Republicans, told the students she was able to meet Ryan early on Thursday. Anderegg said the brief encounter was still a blur.
“There was a lot of flashing lights and then he was just there,” Anderegg said.