Detroit debate photo

Detroit, Michi­gan’s Fox Theatre held the GOP pres­i­dential debate Thursday, March 3.

Macaela Bennett | Col­legian

Although tickets to last Thursday’s GOP pres­i­dential debate in Detroit, Michigan, were scarce, Hillsdale College stu­dents, staff, and faculty didn’t have a problem finding their way into the audience.

Days before the debate was set to be held at the his­toric Fox Theatre, about 21,000 people had applied for tickets to the event, but the Repub­lican National Com­mittee announced only 50 would receive them — with the rest going to Michigan GOP offi­cials and activists. Through several con­nec­tions, however, more than 15 Hillsdale College rep­re­sen­ta­tives received tickets to the March 3 debate hosted by Fox News Channel.

Seeing the can­di­dates in person changed some of their opinions.

“I’m pretty sure my wife became a Cruz voter that night,” said John Miller, director of the Dow Jour­nalism Program.

Miller scored his tickets from Emmaline Epperson ’14, a social media pro­ducer for the Fox Business Channel, and attended the debate with his wife and son — who voted for his first time Tuesday in Michigan’s pres­i­dential primary.

Expe­ri­encing behind-the-scenes moments that TV audi­ences did not see made an impression on the Millers.

“My wife liked seeing Cruz play ring-around-the-rosy with his daughter — I think that really charmed her,” he said.

When lights dimmed for a com­mercial break after Ohio Gov. John Kasich rejected the oppor­tunity to bash busi­nessman Donald Trump, Miller noticed Trump point at Kasich and say, “Thank you.”

“I’ve never seen Trump thank anyone,” Miller said. “I’m not sure what to make of it, but he did it there, and what does that mean?”

Six stu­dents also attended, including two from the Col­legian, with tickets acquired from Career Ser­vices.

While coor­di­nating an upcoming Repub­lican Lead­ership Ini­tiative training program on campus, RNC Director of Strategic Part­ner­ships Mike Mears offered Hillsdale Career Ser­vices the tickets three days before the debate.

Career Ser­vices Assistant Director John Quint then reached out to campus groups and gave the tickets to those who were able to respond quickly.

Other stu­dents got tickets through their cam­paign involvement. Senior Dominic Restuccia, chairman of Michigan Stu­dents for Rubio, was put in charge of dis­trib­uting tickets to young sup­porters who could make noise for Rubio in the debate hall. Restuccia said he gave the tickets to stu­dents on cam­puses around the Midwest based on their per­for­mances working for the cam­paign, which included three other Hillsdale stu­dents.

Although the goal was to make sure the young sup­porters would foster a vocal presence for Rubio during the debate, Restuccia empha­sized the respon­si­bility attendees have.

“You have to maintain respect because you can affect other sup­porters in the debate and the can­di­dates,” he said. “Like the Trump sup­porters inter­rupted other can­di­dates a lot early on, and that affects the way can­di­dates respond by either bol­stering or dis­tracting them, and all of them react dif­fer­ently. Kasich can get really thrown off when he’s booed, Trump grows more ardent, and Cruz and Rubio stay mostly the same.”  

Ana­lyzing how the can­di­dates inter­acted during their post-debate hand­shakes showed a lot about their rela­tion­ships, too, Restuccia said.

“It’s neat to see how their rela­tion­ships seem to have changed over the cam­paign,” he said. “Cruz and Trump have gotten more hostile, but Cruz and Rubio seem like they are closer.”

Miller said he found even more Hillsdale con­nec­tions by wearing his Hillsdale baseball cap to act as a “beacon.” A number of Hillsdale grad­uates and their family members intro­duced them­selves when they noticed it.

One of those was alumnus Charles Couger ’12, who now works as an asso­ciate pro­ducer for Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta Van Sus­teren.”

Miller said TV is the best way to watch debates for their content, but he said meeting so many Hillsdale con­tacts and expe­ri­encing the energy of the debate made it into a “won­derful spec­tacle.”

“There’s a sense of some­thing important hap­pening right before your eyes when you’re there,” he said.

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Macaela Bennett
Collegian editor-in-chief, Macaela J. Bennett grew up in the Pumpkin Capital of the World, Morton, Illinois. In May, she will join The Arizona Republic as a 2016 Pulliam Fellow, working at its News Desk reporting on Metro/Breaking News. In the past, she's interned for The East Peoria Times Courier, Campus Reform, The Town Crier, and The Tennessean. Outside of the newsroom, she enjoys playing soccer, hiking, running, and cheering on the Cubs.