VP debate at Washington U. takes on more importance

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The vice presidential debate at Washington University next month is starting to look a whole lot more intriguing.

Republican John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is generating increased buzz about the Oct. 2 debate at the university in St. Louis. It is the only scheduled matchup of Palin and Democrat Barack Obama's No. 2, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

"At first when it was announced the vice presidential debate would be here, some students had the mentality, 'why didn't we get a presidential debate?"' Brittany Perez, a senior from Tampa, Fla., and president of the university's student government, said Wednesday. "But it's even better at this point because it's the only vice presidential debate, and these are candidates we know the least about."

Little is especially known about Palin, the 44-year-old first-term governor. Supporters say she is a rising political star whose executive experience and reforms make her a strong choice; detractors say that experience came in a state with a small population, and she lacks foreign policy expertise.

Against Biden, Palin will face a man who was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and, through previous runs for president, has extensive debate experience. And although Palin has nearly a month to make herself better known, it's likely many viewers will tune in for a first look at how she handles herself.

"The vice presidential debate will attract a lot of interest because of David, so to speak, going up against Goliath," Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said.

John Hancock, a Missouri Republican strategist, agreed the debate will be closely watched.

"I think it's possible the vice presidential debate might actually get higher ratings than the presidential debates, and I think that's true because of the great contrast between the two candidates," Hancock said.

Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti also expects a big audience.

"I think there will be extra intrigue to this debate because it really gives voters a clear window into the type of decisions these presidential candidates will make, and their judgment if elected president," Cardetti said.

The debate will focus on both domestic and foreign policy and be administered by a single moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS.

Jordan Aibel, a sophomore economics major from Miami, is coordinating voter registration efforts at the university for the Gephardt Institute. He has seen a growing interest in the debate.

"Up until a couple of weeks ago all the talk was about McCain versus Obama, and there wasn't much talk around campus about the vice presidential debate," Aibel said. "But now a lot of the talk is what the Palin-Biden dynamic."

He said McCain's choice of Palin has been a polarizing one among many students.

"You're getting a lot of people asking questions about who she is," he said. "You're getting people basing very strong opinions on very little information."

Gauging any surge in interest nationally is difficult. Media credential requests were due -- without exception -- in mid-August. Tickets to attend the debate in person are assigned by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Washington University gets some tickets, but doesn't sell them -- they're distributed only to full-time students selected via a lottery.

Washington University has been selected as a debate site for every presidential election year since 1992. That year, the university hosted the first three-way debate sponsored by the CPD, featuring incumbent President George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot.

Though selected for a presidential debate in 1996, the one at Washington University was canceled. The university hosted the last of three presidential debates between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore in 2000. The second of three debates in 2004 was in St. Louis, between Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

This year's three presidential debates will be at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 26; at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 7; and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 15.

The CPD has said the first of the three presidential debates typically draws the most viewers, while the vice presidential debate audience is typically comparable to the other two presidential debates.

On the Net:

Commission on Presidential Debates: www.debates.org.

Washington University in St. Louis: www.wustl.edu.

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