Free Press writer John Hartman

John K. Hartman

I can't help but speculate that none other than former Gov. John Kasich was behind the selection of Otterbein University as the site for the fourth Democratic Presidential Debate Oct. 15.

Columbus Business Firstreported that it was a cryptic call from CNN to Otterbein that started the process.

It would not be surprising if Johnny Nobody whispered in his new employer's ears that his hometown of Westerville would be perfect for the roasting of his archrival President Donald Trump.

Otterbein currently provides a studio from which Kasich does his commentator musings on CNN, so he owes the university one.

Kasich is still smarting from the whipping Trump gave him in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. Johnny only carried Ohio and that only with the help of the endorsement of OSU football icon Urban Meyer.

He was on CNN, the debate sponsor, and MSNBC earlier Oct. 15 touting his new book about nothing anybody would pay to read. It should be titled: Nobody Writes About Nothing.

Johnny offered advice to candidates for president: just be yourself.

Bad advice. Most Republican voters did not like Johnny's self.

As a credentialed journalist covering the debate, I was able to witness a slice of history. Here are my observations.

Pack your lunch.

There is a lot of hurry up and wait.

I had to show up at Otterbein's Clements Recreation Center the day before to identify myself and get my credentials. I got the last off-street parking spot and still had to walk a quarter of a mile to get there.

Parking the day of the event was even more restricted so I parked in a church lot and walked a good mile to get in.

Once inside, it was smooth sailing to seat No. 5, on the front row of the portion of the Clements Center that held the 700 members of the working press at long tables covered in black. Big TV sets tuned to CNN were positioned throughout the area. Mine was a foot from my head, but I was six feet from the spin room where CNN and its competitors were set up and where the candidates would come to be interviewed after the debate at the adjacent Rike Center.

I arrived at 2 p.m., six hours in advance, so I had a lot of time to fill. I had a great seat and wanted to stay close to keep it, so I eschewed the food trucks outside that would have required another trip through security. There were law enforcement officers everywhere and all were polite thoroughgoing professionals.

So I subsisted on the free stuff: water, coffee, energy bars and candy. Covering big political events does not lend itself to a balanced diet.

The CNN monitor in my face kept trumpeting "Breaking News." I wondered if I should only write about "Broken News."

The idea of television is to keep people watching for as long as possible and that requires regular stimulation. CNN anchors love the word "developing" as a way to keep viewers hanging.

In fact, I wonder if the event was more a branding exercise for CNN, its partner the New York Times, the Democratic Party and Otterbein University than a political event. The four logos were plastered all over the place.

Most of CNN's big anchors and top commentators (except Kasich) were there. Its rivals sent lessers.

The ads on CNN were pretty pedestrian (sports has-beens like Joe Namath and Mike Ditka touting insurance for seniors) except the one from Trump's folks at 6:40 p.m. bad-rapping Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff for investigating and daring to impeach the Orange One.

Finally, show time arrived and the 12 Democratic Apostles quickly ripped into Trump as the most corrupt, most unpatriotic, most Constitution-violating and most despicable president ever. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Trump was "Making Russia Great Again."

Then several turned on the new frontrunner, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and sought to bring her down by labeling her health insurance for all proposal as too tax-raising expensive, unworkable and people like their current plans, or some such.

Only Sen. Bernie Sanders, looking very fit after a recent mild heart attack, would defend her, but not too enthusiastically because she has taken away some of his progressive base.          

Mayor Pete Buttigieg (yes, I double-checked the spelling) and Klobuchar led the Warren takedown as sensible Midwesterners (he from Indiana and she from Minnesota) debating in a sensible Midwest Ohio that went for Trump by 8 percent in 2016. Former frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden piled on lightly, saying "too expensive."

Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker put in plugs for women's health and reproductive issues.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang dominated the segment about the economy because he had the audacity to point out that artificial intelligence, robots, driverless cars and other technological developments are going to wreck the manufacturing and service economies as we know them and throw millions out of work in the next 10-15 years.

Yang noted that Trump won Ohio and other Midwest states by promising to take us back to the past of good-paying manufacturing jobs and has failed. Yang proposes a $1,000 a month payment for everybody to take the sting out of what some call "techlash."

Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions on ads demanding that Trump be impeached, tried to push his other signature issue, global warming, with limited success.

After the debate, the candidates entered the spin room where I and a few hundred reporters were waiting for them. Talk about a meat market. Lots of TV cameras to duck.

It all comes back to the three septuagenarians: Warren, Biden and Sanders. Who can beat septuagenarian Trump in the Battle of the Oldsters?

The original progressive Sanders, the up and coming progressive Warren, or the mainstream Biden.

On the long walk to my car, I again passed the house of young Trump supporters. They were dancing on the sidewalk as college good times had taken over for politics.

A block from my car on a lonely but well-lit street, I was surprised by two foxes, crossing the street in front of me and heading into the woods. I gave them a wide berth. They left me alone.

I expect to be surprised by political developments, too. I suspect that the Democratic nominee for president will not be named Sanders, Warren or Biden.

(Please send your comments and suggestions for future columns to John K. Hartman,

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