MESA — This city, Arizona’s third largest, gets its chance to show off today with the Republican presidential debate booked into its gorgeous art center — a complex of four theaters, five art galleries and 14 art studios in the center of town, just a block from Arizona’s first temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
CNN’s Sam Feist, executive producer of the network’s debates, said once CNN had arranged with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to host a debate in the state, it went looking for “the perfect location” and the choice of Mesa became obvious.
“Just look at this place, it’s gorgeous,” Feist said. Feist said he was also swayed by the enthusiasm of Mesa officials for hosting the debate.
The festivities tonight will sprawl across the Arts Center and spill into the nearby blocked streets, where an inflatable 14-by-20-foot television screen was being set up at 2 p.m.
The sidewalks nearby had become a political bazaar, with tables staffed by most of the state’s Republican clubs and supporters of GOP candidates for office.
Early activity was dominated by about 200 youthful Ron Paul supporters who stood outside the Arts Center barricades with signs.
Hot-dog vendor Dave Weaver said he expected a banner day from his location nearby.
Weaver might be able to teach the candidates an economics lesson as well. He quit his job as a high school business teacher after he had his students write business plans for a variety of vendors and Weaver found out he could earn $60,000 to $100,000 a year.
He was enjoing his work Wednesday, dispensing Hebrew Nationals, chatting with customers and keeping his eye on the TV he brought along to watch the Accenture Match Play golf from Marana, which is also enjoying a wonderful sunny day in the spotlight.
The four candidates — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — will sit for this debate at a desk last used by CNN at the end of the debate cycle four years ago.
Now that the field is down to four, Feist said, such an arrangement is possible.
Romney and Paul should feel at home, he said. They used the same set during a CNN debate in 2008, along with eventual nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, and Mike Huckabee.
Those lucky enough to wrangle a ticket to the debate, either through connections or a hefty contribution to the Arizona GOP, lined up in the sun just after 3 p.m. to pass through security for a debate that won’t start until 6 p.m.
Kevin and Susan Murphy of Mesa were celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary. “She didn’t want a diamond,” said Kevin. “She wanted a ticket.”
Susan Murphy worked on the Romney campaign four years ago and is helping out again this year. Both voted early for Romney.
The Adler family from Scottsdale was split on its choices. Mom Diane likes Romney, “but I think my daughter (26-year-old Adrienne) would kill me if I didn’t say Ron Paul.”
Romney was the obvious choice for Debbie Romney of Scottsdale, whose grandfather was cousin to Mitt Romney’s grandfather. Both took their families to Chihuahua, Mexico when Mormons were beng prosecuted for polygamy at the end of the 19th Centery.
Debbie Romney said she has liked her candidate since he was governor of Massachusetts. She has already cast her vote for him.
Paul William Rihs of Ahwatukee said he “already voted with my heart not my head,” casting a ballot for Newt Gingrich, who trails well behind Romney and Rick Santorum in any Arizona poll.
David and Carol Wyatt, also of Ahwatukee, were still undecided and holding onto their early ballots. The debate will probably make their decision, they both said. Their choices are down to Romney, Santorum and Paul. “We’re pretty much the anybody-but-Romney voter,” said David.
Dr. Gary Kauffman, a cardiologist from Paradise Valley, and his wife, Catherine, were debating Wednesday afternoon whether to watch the presidential debate from the street viewing party in downtown Mesa or go home and catch it on the TV.
They were not happy about the choice. They thought they had tickets to the broadcast, but when they showed up to claim their seats, their names were not on the list.
They were with a handful people outside the debate entrance with the same problem.
Catherine, a precinct committeewoman in Legislative District 11, said the couple had contributed $200 each to the party i exchange for their tickets. “We even got a phone call for a security check,” said Dr. Kauffman.
They were told by Republican Party officials that their money would be refunded.
Neither had yet picked a candidate. “This was going to be the deciding factor,” said Dr. Kauffman. “There are certain things I dislike about all of them.”
Paul and Joyce Mellott of Mesa were also outside the Mesa Arts Center looking in over the barricades. The planned it that way. The couple voted for Santorum. Joyce had to be persuaded. “I liked Romney. I also like Ron Paul but I didn’t want to waste my vote.”
Savanna Rucker was outside the Mesa Arts Center, standing quietly across from a rowdy, loud crowd of Ron Paul supporters. She wore an “Latter Day Saints for Ron Paul” T-shirt.
Jeremy Saxey of Mesa said the group is actively backing the non-Mormon Paul over Romney because “The leaders of LDS have always advised us to be strong advocates for the Constitution and individual liberties.
Not all the signs and cheers were for the Republican candidates. A group supporting the “Dream Act,” which would grant permanent legal residency to young immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors and meet other criteria.
They held signs and chanted “Veto Romney; not the Dream Act.”
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith introduced the debate as the “Duel in the Desert” or “Mayhem in Mesa.
About 300 hundred chairs lined up before the giant viewing screen outside the center were filled by 5 p.m.