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A scuffle, a star and the spin

After the debate, the madness seems almost choreographed in the candidates' spin room.

Published November 30, 2007

A blogger uses a PDA and video camera in the spin room at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg following Wednesday's CNN/YouTube Republican debate.
[Martha Rial | Times]
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The spin room is a surreal, circuslike place where every campaign claims debate victory, few legitimate candidates dare go, anyone armed with a camera becomes a journalist, and - apparently - where no holds are barred.

The latest superlative comes from inside the East Atrium at the Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday night.

A tussle broke out as reporters jostled for position around GOP debate star Mike Huckabee.

Jim Shea, a short, portly and sweaty man who edits the online newspaper the American Reporter, used his forearm to push Huckabee's bodyman - a part body guard, part handler attached to the hip of every candidate. The aide, Drake Jarman, fell to the ground amid the swarm of photographers. Some say Shea "threw him" to the ground, but then again, this is the spin room, the birthplace of rumor.

At this point, Huckabee spun around. "I'm going to get Chuck Norris out here," he said, before snapping back into his TV face for a live interview.

Security took Shea away and eventually let him go. But it was the most bizarre moment of the night, nearly par for the course in the spin room.

In the not-so-distant past, this domain was a place of moderate substance where candidates and their "surrogates" (that is, well-known supporters) helped dictate the winner of the verbal contest.

But now, this choreographed madness is merely a backdrop for cable news shows, disregarded by most venerable reporters and overrun with amateur bloggers and jokesters trying to instigate a gaffe.

Justine Lam, 28, walked around in a baseball hat featuring a video camera broadcasting wirelessly to a Ron Paul campaign Web site. "You're live right now," she said.

Susan B. Anthony would be so proud

Next consider a 21-year-old skinny blond named Angelia Chiapelli, who apparently likes heavy makeup but not shirts that cover her chest. She toured the room for, a Web site that produces political spoofs like the viral "Obama Girl" videos, which feature even more women who don't like wearing clothing.

She approached Republican longshot Duncan Hunter (one of only three candidates to enter the room, joining Huckabee and Paul), interrupted a reporter and shouted, "I'm hunting for Hunter."

"What's that?" Hunter asked, hoping he heard wrong.

Smiling, Chiapelli repeated her slogan and he stared blankly at her for a very awkward few seconds.

Hunter recognized the cameras were rolling and tried to diffuse the situation. Other reporters exchanged looks that indicated they felt bad about a U.S. congressman enduring this nonsense.

But what would Chuck Norris do?

The only reprieve from the inane is star power. Take Huckabee's celebrity-supporter Walker, Texas Ranger, who came with his wife, Gena.

He's not typical spin room fare. Chuck Norris doesn't need a bodyman. Chuck Norris has Chuck Norris. Where the martial arts expert moved, crowds followed.

A Russian journalist named Mikhail Solodovnikov stuck a large red, white and blue microphone 6 inches from Norris' face and asked about the debate. Then Norris was faced with another blond in shiny red shoes who asked:"Do you think Walker, Texas Ranger could be president?"

"I would not want to be a politician," said Norris, who is 67 (true, we double-checked). "Now, let me tell you this: If I was campaigning and I was going against my opponent and he started attacking my character and I leaped over the table and choked him unconscious, would that help my campaign?

"No," he finished.

Howard Fineman, a veteran of dozens of spin rooms and Newsweek's chief political correspondent, worked his way to the front of the pack.

"My son, who is 16, is your biggest fan," he said as he positioned himself for a picture. "If I don't do this I'm going to get killed."

Later, as Norris moved on, Fineman stopped to admire the picture on his BlackBerry, a political reporter's fifth appendage. "I got my picture with Chuck Norris!" he said.

Nearby, Clayton Vanis, executive director of the University of South Florida's College Republicans, had a similar experience. "Chuck Norris gave me props on my beard," Vanis said. "My life is now complete."

By then, the spin room was nearly empty.

Except for a few cameras. And Duncan Hunter.

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 754-6114. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at or (727) 892-2273.

[Last modified November 30, 2007, 00:28:50]

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