Hofstra University freshman Yuliya Semenovych first heard the whir and lights of network satellite trucks outside her dorm at 3 a.m.

By 5, sleep was impossible - as her classmates waved signs, shouted and gaped at dozens of television reporters staging morning live shots on a still-dark campus that was about to become the center of the political universe.

"It's pretty exciting, but I needed to get away for a while," Semenovych said yesterday, having stolen away to do some homework on the South Campus quad, which was a peaceful oasis from the debate-crazed Student Center area on the other side of Hempstead Turnpike.

"It's for journalism class," she said, sheepishly, "so I guess it's kind of ironic that I'm ignoring all the journalists over there."

The Hempstead campus, which has been gearing up for months to host the third and final presidential debate, was an odd mix of calm and chaos in the hours leading up to last night's showdown between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

The south side of campus was largely empty and quiet. Besides state troopers checking student identifications at the entrances to the aerial walkways over Hempstead Turnpike, it was hard to tell anything out of the ordinary was going on.

A few Hofstra employees sitting on a bench near the library relished the quiet and the absence of commercial vehicles on the normally traffic-choked Hempstead Turnpike.

"I wish it was like this every day," one said.

On the north campus, students with political signs and slogan T-shirts crowded three and four deep outside the MSNBC tent set up in front of Alliance Hall, their cheers rising and falling with each commercial break.

Steve Balick, a freshman from Centereach, was especially popular with the press, thanks to his "Once you go Barack you never go back" T-shirt.

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"This is ridiculous!" Balick said.

His friends snapped pictures as a Kenyan television cameraman filmed his T-shirt.

"I'm already on my second set of batteries," said Lisa Lamontagne, 18, of western Massachusetts.

Not far away, a crowd of better-dressed students gathered outside Hofstra USA, a campus bar and grill. They were among the lucky 200 or so students who won a ticket to the debate in an online lottery.

Told to gather between 4 and 4:30 p.m. to take a bus to the debate venue, some students arrived as early as 3 p.m.

Shanelle Mangum, 22, a senior marketing major from Elmont, was in class when she got the e-mail Tuesday night telling her she had a ticket.

"I called my mom - she was at work and she just started screaming," Mangum said.

Second-year law student Gina Dolan, 23, immediately began surfing newspaper and political Web sites, "because I felt like it was my responsibility to get as educated as I could before I went in there, because so few people get this chance."