Republican debate audiences provoke controversy

Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES - Members of the audience cheer at the start of the Fox News/Google GOP Debate at the Orange County Convention Center Orlando, Fla., on Thursday.

Forget the sound bites from the stage. Some of the most memorable moments from a series of Republican presidential debates have come not from the candidates competing for the nomination but from the intensely partisan audiences there to appraise them.

In four of the most recent debates, assertive audience members have managed to make their mark on the proceedings. They have elevated the profiles of second-tier candidates, such as Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, with their uproarious applause, and they have taken Texas Gov. Rick Perry down a few notches by loudly booing his record on illegal immigration.

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Some audience members boo a gay soldier who asked the GOP presidential candidates about their positions on “don’t ask, don’t tell” during Thursday night’s debate in Orlando. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said he would reinstate the military's former policy, which received applause. (Sept. 22) (Fox News)

Some audience members boo a gay soldier who asked the GOP presidential candidates about their positions on “don’t ask, don’t tell” during Thursday night’s debate in Orlando. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said he would reinstate the military's former policy, which received applause. (Sept. 22) (Fox News)

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By applauding Perry’s record on executions, they demonstrated that issues such as the death penalty can still provoke strong emotions even when they do not rank as a top priority to voters in the polls.

The loud audience participation also has sparked controversy. Earlier this month, a few audience members cheered when the debate moderator posed a hypothetical about a dying 30-year-old who lacked health insurance. And in Thursday night’s debate, a few boos erupted when a gay service member stationed in Iraq posed a question via YouTube about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was formally repealed last week.

Political observers say the audiences in this year’s GOP debates have been particularly demonstrative about their views. They credit that in part to the organizers of the debates, who have made an unprecedented effort to include the public by going so far as to invite their questions via Twitter and YouTube.

The audience’s outspokenness has in many ways served a positive purpose by illustrating the energy of the base, GOP strategists say. But it has also conveyed a somewhat unsavory image to less ideological people at home watching on television.

“You have very partisan people come to these events, and in some ways it is just human nature,” said Ed Rollins, former campaign manager for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), one of the Republican hopefuls for president. But some of the more controversial moments “to the mainstream audience [are] not very appealing.”

At an NBC/Politico debate in California this month, the mere mention of Perry’s execution record by NBC moderator Brian Williams provoked a round of applause.

“Your state has executed 234 death-row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times,” Williams said before the clapping began(that number has since risen to 235). “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”

Perry’s answer, which began, “No, sir, I have not struggled with that,” elicited an even more boisterous response, which is perhaps not surprising, considering that 64 percent of Americans and 78 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters back capital punishment, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

Still, Rollins said he found the applause disturbing. “I’m someone who’s for capital punishment, but it needs to be about justice and not a rallying point or a cheering point,” he said.

At the following debate in Florida, which was co-sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, moderator Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical to Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.): An uninsured 30-year-old comes down with a grave illness and cannot afford the medical care. “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”

“Yeah!” shouted at least two voices from the audience.

Perry later told NBC News and the Miami Herald that he was “taken aback” by the shouts.

The latest controversial outburst from audience members came during a Fox News/Google debate Thursday night, when a U.S. service member stationed in Iraq asked a question about the recent lifting of the military’s ban on gay and lesbian soldiers serving openly.

“In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I am a gay soldier and I didn’t want to lose my job,” said Stephen Hill, standing by a bunk in an Army T-shirt. “Do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

One loud boo was followed by several others. Many Republican commentators condemned the catcalls. On Friday, Rick Santorum, the candidate who ended up taking the question, condemned the negative response in a follow-up interview with Fox News.

“I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier,” said the former senator for Pennsylvania. “I have to admit I seriously did not hear those boos. . . . But certainly had I, I would’ve said, ‘Don’t do that. This man is serving our country and we are to thank him for his service.’ ”

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