PORTLAND – On an 8-foot screen, amplified by a sound system normally reserved for rock bands, President Obama and Mitt Romney verbally sparred over gas and oil prices.
Watching and listening were more than 200 people, most younger than 35, crowded into the second-floor space of Empire Dine and Dance on Congress Street.
To anyone coming in off the street, with the beer and all the yelling, it looked like a crowd watching “Monday Night Football” instead of a televised debate between the presidential candidates.
In fact, the atmosphere all night long was more like a sports bar than a political gathering.
Like when Romney tried to take more than his allotted time in responding to Obama, and was stopped by moderator Candy Crowley.
“Shut ’em down Candy, shut ’em down,” yelled Michael Leonard of Portland, standing near the sound mixing board with a beer in his hand.
Obama’s mention of the term “contraceptive coverage” got a big cheer. Louder cheers came after Romney finished explaining why he thought Obama’s policies on oil drilling were bad, and Obama quickly answered, “Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true.”
Tuesday’s “Debate Night” was the third in a series of debate-watching parties organized by Empire Dine and Dance, along with the Maine’s Majority Political Action Committee and the League of Young Voters.
The event drew a mostly liberal crowd. In fact, the closest thing Republican Romney got to a cheer was the silence he got after saying he wanted to make sure college graduates could get jobs.
On the bar’s top floor, where bands usually play, people sat on stools or stood to watch the debate on the big screen. On the bar’s main floor, people sat at tables or at the bar, some nibbling food between shouts and cheers at the TVs.
There was no cover charge for the event, and the sponsoring groups gave out information about local elections and voter registration.
“It’s a good feeling to put on something like this that’s about community involvement,” said Ryan Dolan, the bar’s talent buyer, as he checked sound levels. “We did this in 2008, too, and it was great. Then we started doing it this year and it’s been intense.”
Leonard, who was vocal for much of the night, said he came out to watch the debate broadcast from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., because he finds it “energizing” to witness political debate with like-minded people.
“Very little today is done as a group, except for maybe sporting events and concerts. So much is done alone in the living room,” said Leonard, who works in business development at Portland’s State Theatre and said his age “is a mystery.”
Many in the crowd compared watching the debate in public to watching football at a sports bar. Many said they wanted to watch it in public to see the reaction of others to the various jabs made, and taken, by the candidates.
“Debates are fun to watch in public, because it feels like a game. When your guy does well, others celebrate with you, and when he doesn’t, you have folks to commiserate with,” said Julia Henderson, 34, of Portland, holding a glass of hard cider.
She said she was on Obama’s team, as far as rooting went. “I’m also new to Portland and am very curious about how people here react to this.”
Aaron Bridgham of Scarborough said he liked seeing people’s reactions to the debate, instead of just asking them what they thought the next day.
“I like the atmosphere, seeing everyone, it’s intense,” said Bridgham, 29, who is majoring in international studies at the University of Southern Maine.
Vivian Edwards was in Portland with her family Tuesday, on vacation from their home in England.
Instead of just settling for another tourist attraction, Edwards and her family decided to take in the debate to see how Portlanders view the candidates.
“We have been very interested in this election, and we don’t like Romney’s policies,” said Edwards, who identified herself as liberal. “We wondered if people here thought of Romney’s policies as extreme.”
The answer to that question at Empire Dine and Dance Tuesday night was a resounding “boooo.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: