Inside the hall at Belmont University ahead of tonight’s presidential debate

Hello from Nashville, where it's cooled down some from a high of 84 degrees this afternoon. There is a small supplemental pool seated in the audience for tonight's debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

 Photo: Press Pool

Doors opened at 6:30 p.m. CST. The event is being held at Belmont University's Curb Event Center arena, which has 5,500 seats and has been used for a broad array of events, including the 2008 town hall presidential debate and an international tennis competition, according to the university. The hall is surrounded by an oval-shaped ring of bleachers.

Tonight, there are expected to be about 200 people in the hall, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The blue-carpeted stage has two dark blue lecterns. There is no plexiglass between them, but I’m told by co-pooler Steve Peoples that there was plexiglass up earlier today. In front of the lecterns is a wide blue desk for moderator Kristen Welker. Behind the stage is a banner of stars and the presidential debate seal, an eagle with a banner in its beak that reads “The Union and the Constitution forever.”

The lecterns are 12’8” head-to-head, according to Robin Goldman of the CPD, and they are more than 16 feet from the moderator’s desk.

In the audience are about seven full rows of chairs on a red carpet, many of them marked with a sign that reads: “Thank you for not sitting here in observance of social distancing.” Attendees, all of whom so far are wearing masks, mingled as they waited for the event to begin, many of them gathering not-terribly-distantly near the stage.

Many of the chairs closest to the stage are reserved for the candidate’s guests. On Trump’s side, the chairs are marked reserved for the First Lady, Eric Trump, Lara Trump, Ivanka Trump, Tiffany Trump, Ambassador Nikki Haley, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Ronna McDaniel, Stephanie Grisham and Ambassador Ric Grenell, among others. Seats are also marked for Michael Boulos, who according to press reports is Tiffany Trump’s boyfriend, and Carl Mueller, the father of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker in Syria who was held hostage and killed by Islamic State militants in 2015.

Pool didn’t see seats marked on the Biden side. Each seat has an orange program and a pack of anti-bacterial wipes from C-SPAN.

Attendees had to go through security and receive temperature checks to enter the debate hall. Attendees are also wearing blue wristbands to show they have tested negative for Covid. Upon entering the building, guests were greeted by several signs advising them: “For the safety of all attendees, any individual entering the debate hall is required to wear a medical mask.” No cloth masks are permitted. 

***

At 7:38 p.m., the lights in the hall were dimmed and guests were asked to take their seats. Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission
on Presidential Debates, stood on stage and thanked the organizers of the debate.

CPD co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf outlined the ground rules, in which one of the candidates’ mics will be muted while the other one delivers his opening statement for two minutes. That will happen at the top of each of the six sections, he says. In the first debate, he said, the rules were that each candidate would get a two-minute opening statement, and “those rules were not necessarily followed.” He asks the audience not to clap or otherwise make noise during the debate, and says attendees must keep their masks on. If you take your mask off and decline to put it back on, he says, you will be escorted out.

Pool’s view is partly obstructed, but the candidates’ families appear to now taken their seats. First Lady Melania Trump is wearing a long black dress. Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, is also in the audience.

Kristen Welker, the moderator, came out at 7:57 p.m., welcomed the candidates’ families—and said she was glad FLOTUS is feeling
better—and said she was looking forward to the debate.

***

At 8:03, the candidates took the stage. Biden entered wearing a mask and took it off. Potus could not be seen wearing a mask. The candidates did not shake hands.

Pool can only see the back of most guests’ heads, but Eric Trump can be spotted wearing a mask in the front row.

Pool will send a couple of reports on audience reaction. The debate is starting now.

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