There was never any question, among the denizens of Raleigh’s Velvet Cloak Inn, about who would win the first presidential debate Friday night. Inside the hotel’s lounge hung a McCain-Palin placard considerably larger than the wide-screen TV tuned to Fox News. About 50 GOP activists had gathered for an informal debate-watching party at the hotel, located just across Hillsborough Street from N.C. Republican Party headquarters. A more official barbecue dinner had been canceled when Sen. John McCain announced he would “suspend” his campaign to deal with Wall Street’s meltdown.

Anna Cohen, who moved to Apex from New Jersey two weeks ago, was making the rounds, taking names for a Republican women’s function next month. She approached a small cluster of N.C. State students, who had secreted in a six-pack of Heineken. “We’re all going to get drunk the day after John McCain wins,” Cohen told the only female student in the group. “I’m gonna get drunk either way,” the young woman replied.

When the clock struck 9, everyone took a seat. I shared a table with Cohen and two other Apex women, Margaret McDermott and Joan Brookes. They drank Diet Coke, ate Domino’s Pizza and provided a running commentary throughout the debate. They shook their heads disapprovingly as Sen. Barack Obama called this week’s crisis “a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain.” They laughed at McCain’s line, “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.” When Obama criticized his opponent for supporting President Bush’s budgets—“this orgy of spending and enormous deficits”— Brookes turned and said, “It looks like he’s trying to be mean. He’s a mean man.” Later, when the Democrat mentioned his Kenyan father, Brookes smirked and said, “The father that he’d seen for a month.”

Most of the commentary at our table denounced Obama for harping on Congress’ vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. After all, the Apex women noted, that happened almost six years ago. Cohen found herself shouting back at the TV every time the Illinois senator raised his early opposition to the war.

Compared to Afghanistan, “we have four times the number of troops in Iraq,” Obama said, “where nobody had anything to do with 9/11 before we went in—where, in fact, there was no al Qaeda before we went in.”

“Don’t deal with where the mistakes were!” Cohen said. “Deal with today!”

Afterward, McDermott insisted that Obama overplays his longstanding opposition to the war. “When he said he took a heroic stand against entering Iraq, it wasn’t very heroic,” she said. “He was in the Illinois legislature. It had no national attention. It had no significance.” She chuckled quickly. “He was basically an unknown.”

“Do you think we were right to get into the war?” I asked.

“I don’t think there’s any benefit in going…,” McDermott said, leaving her sentence unfinished. “It’s, ‘What do we now? We’re there.’ I think it’s a fruitless journey to—there’s no point answering the first question.”

“McCain did really well in saying that,” Brookes added. “We’re there now.”

“If I were to guess the conversation that were happening at a Democratic watching party right now,” I said, “it would be that it does make a difference because it shows the judgment of the commander-in-chief, that the next conflict …”

“I don’t have time to debate it,” McDermott said. “We have to run.” I started to thank her for her time, but she interrupted me. “We have to run, don’t we?” she asked Brookes.

Cohen, the New Jersey transplant, was more eager to talk. “I don’t know if we should have gotten into Iraq,” she said. “I think that we should have spearheaded Afghanistan much more carefully. The decision to go in may have been wrong, but once we were there, we couldn’t withdraw without being victorious.”

Although Cohen is new to Wake County, she wanted to jump immediately into the McCain campaign. “I realized that it’s going to a very, very dangerous world if I don’t get involved,” she said. But not necessarily because of terrorism: “The one thing that is so dangerous to us today is that when you have major tax increases, the people who create jobs are the ones Obama wants to tax. So he’s looking to take money out of the economy.” Tax relief for the vast majority of Americans—those with the most modest incomes, as Obama proposes—doesn’t cut it for her: “No working person creates a job,” she said. Cohen worries the Democrat’s plans to shift the burden toward wealthier taxpayers would “drive us into a recession”—or perhaps “deeper into one.”

“Thank you so much,” I said. “And welcome here. You’ll really like North Carolina.”

“Well,” she said, “I’ve gotta get registered to vote.”