No debate: Hofstra's ready for the big day

Banners hung throughout Hofstra University promoted the upcoming Banners hung throughout Hofstra University promoted the upcoming presidential debate. (Oct. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz meets weekly with the head of each campus department to ask one seemingly simple question: Are we ready?

"And they have all sworn to me," said Rabinowitz, his right hand up as if taking an oath, " 'Yes, we are ready.' "

After months of planning and about $3 million in costs, the spotlight is just days away as the campus transforms to host the second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney on Oct. 16.

Hofstra will reprise its 2008 role -- becoming only the second university in recent history to host the presidential debate in two consecutive election cycles.

Most of the major infrastructure repairs have held up well in the four years since the faceoff between Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, but there are multitudes of last-minute details and a mounting excitement as the campus grooms for millions of viewers.

"There's no less urgency but we have a drop more confidence," Rabinowitz said.

Outside the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, the debate venue, crews work around the clock, laying miles of wire, building television camera platforms, even moving trees to accommodate satellite trucks that will broadcast live.

Red, white and blue flowers planted along the curb are starting to bloom.

Debate 2012 banners dot Hempstead Turnpike, which divides the campus.

On the south side, there are the classroom discussions, planning for student debate watch parties, performance rehearsals and the school's debate lecture series, which has brought political names like Jeb Bush and Cornel West into the John Adams Playhouse since the start of the semester.

The buzz is inescapable.

"You're going to class, and on the surface it all seems like a regular campus," said Elisa Tang, 19, a sophomore from New Egypt, N.J. "But it's gotten to the point where this is all we think about and all anyone talks about now."

More than 6,500 students entered an online lottery for tickets to the debate. The school required those who entered to be registered voters and make a promise to cast a ballot on Election Day, Nov. 6.

An advance team from the producers of the event, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is nonpartisan but controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, will arrive early this week.

A full production crew will begin setting up Friday, coming from the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Kentucky, said Peter Eyre, senior analyst with the commission.

Eyre said they won't know how many seats or how many tickets will be available for the Mack center until producers get on-site and size up the town-hall-style layout.

Any tickets Hofstra gets will go to students. Even the college's president will watch it on television from an alternate location, university officials said.

About 3,200 journalists from media outlets worldwide will set up camp on the grounds beginning Thursday.

The attention is a welcome byproduct for a school that is bolstering its graduate programs and raising its national profile.

In 2008, Hofstra was one of the top 15 Google search terms on debate night.

Marketing analysts estimate the total publicity value of the media generated from the event exceeds $30 million, Rabinowitz said.

Hofstra spent $4.5 million total in funds raised to host the event, with the lion's share underwritten by real estate developer and investor David S. Mack, of Kings Point.

The cost includes a $1.6 million production fee paid to the debate commission.

Mack, an alumnus, is one of the school's most generous donors. In addition to the arena, at least three other buildings on campus bear his name.

Several corporations and nonprofit groups including Anheuser-Busch, Southwest Airlines and the Howard Buffet Foundation have given funding and in-kind donations to the commission for the 2012 debates.

About 350 student volunteers will work the event. Student journalists, some of whom traveled to cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions, will also be on hand.

The school is making an extra effort to engage students through campus events since many won't be allowed near the debate hall.

"You hear people who have no interest in politics now talking about this debate," said Andrea Standrowicz, 19, a sophomore and publishing major from Thompson, Conn. "Everyone is getting pumped."

Faculty and students are seizing the educational opportunities. Dozens of classes across all disciplines this semester are devoted to looking at the debates and the 2012 election.

"Remember, it's the second time around for us at Hofstra, but the first time for most of the students," said Bob Papper, chairman of the Department of Journalism, Mass Media and Public Relations at Hofstra University, one of the largest academic departments at Hofstra. "It is the ultimate living laboratory for our students."

 

On a recent afternoon, Mary St. Angelo, 21, a theater major from Malverne, wore a light blue 19th-century dress, complete with petticoat, as she embodied journalist and suffragist Elizabeth Freeman.

She was among 15 students rehearsing lines for a popular campus show called "Democracy in Performance," re-enactments of historical events that will occur on campus the day before the debate.

About 1,300 students from all over Long Island are expected to come.

The students spent countless hours researching and editing their lines, and are eager to get their work out of the classroom, St. Angelo said.

"We're working on how we move, speak, our hand gestures -- a lot like what I'd imagine the political candidates are doing right now, too," she said. "We really can't wait to show everyone."

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