Anticipation builds as WashU prepares for presidential debate

Friday, October 1, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- At Washington University, a dizzying array of details must be met to turn a school campus into a presidential debate site -- like adding 53 miles of fiber optic cables, 1,500 temporary phone numbers and 25,000 feet of new carpeting.

Organizers said transforming the university's field house into a debate forum for President Bush and Sen. John Kerry by next Friday is no simple task, but the university knows what must be done.

On Oct. 8, Washington University will host its third presidential debate since October 1992, when then-President Bush joined Democrat Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot in a nationally televised debate there.

The school was to have hosted another presidential debate in 1996, but that event was canceled. Three weeks ago, there were concerns that this year's St. Louis debate would be eliminated, but it remained on schedule.

All of that planning has made Washington University an experienced host.

"There's always a lot of uncertainty, and we know the next week will be crazy," said Steve Givens, chairman of the school's presidential debate steering committee. But, he added, "We know we can do it because we've done it before."

The St. Louis debate, the second between Bush and Kerry, will be a 90-minute, town-hall format, where candidates will field questions from area voters.

Givens expected roughly 1,050 audience members and said about 2,500 members of the press applied for credentials. Two additional gyms at the school will be equipped so the media can cover the debate.

On Thursday, workers built wooden platforms to hold cameras and hung blue drapery from the walls, while plastic covered the newly installed red carpeting under their feet.

No sweating candidates

T.J. Shelton Jr., the school's assistant director of athletics facility, operations and special events, pointed out men who were adjusting the cooling system; the room will be kept at a brisk 65 degrees, organizers confirmed.

So no sweating candidates? "At least not from the temperature of the room," Shelton said. "If it's from his own performance, he's in trouble."

Givens said the temperature will be set low to counteract heat from the lights, and keep everyone -- not just the candidates-- from getting hot.

Around campus, the mood was upbeat, as the grounds were prepared for the university's time in the spotlight.

It's a markedly different atmosphere from the school's last presidential debate on Oct. 17, 2000, between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The event came just a day after Missouri's Gov. Mel Carnahan died along with his son, Randy, and longtime aide Chris Sifford in a plane crash.

Carnahan, who was vying for the U.S. Senate, was flying to a campaign event in southeast Missouri when the plane piloted by his son went down on a stormy night.

On Thursday, several of the roughly 12,000 students at Washington University were buzzing about this year's upcoming debate.

Student forums have been held weekly to talk about issues, and there were more lighthearted signs of the school's national role.

Four campus bakeries were selling donkey and elephant cookies, and a tally was being kept. Students can vote for their candidate through their cookie purchases.

By Thursday, 199 donkeys had been bought in support of Democrats with 125 elephants for Republicans sold, said Robert Johndrow with Bon Appetit, the university's food service provider.

Dallas Bryson, 19, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said she had to buy two of the decorated sugar cookies, after she purchased a broken cookie she thought was a donkey, but was an elephant when she unwrapped it. She went back for a donkey, but wasn't sure she wanted everyone knowing her political choice. She asked, "My dad's not going to find out I bought a Kerry cookie, is he?"

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