While America awaited the first presidential debate, the University of Miami on Wednesday was bracing for a potentially more explosive clash of ideas: the World Wrestling Entertainment "Smackdown The Vote" debate.
A banner advertising the Smackdown soiree — promising two U of M students, three wrestling stars and "two politicians" — was strung up near the student center, where a CNN broadcast set had touched down in the courtyard outside the food court. Inside the center, the Young Democrats had set up a table to promote a Debate Watch Rally. Lyndon LaRouche supporters at a table nearby promoted their idea that President Bush is insane.
A little more than 24 hours before Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry face off in what could be the critical event of the campaign season, the University of Miami's campus looked and felt like many of the stopovers in the 2004 race, from New Hampshire to Boston to Madison Square Garden.
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It was a place suddenly invaded by armies of supporters and security agents, leaving the natives alternately excited and annoyed.
Real life went on alongside the preparations for presidential pomp and circumstance. The Psychology Club and Entrepreneurship Club advertised meetings, even as students prepared for increased security on Thursday that will shut down their campus rail line, transform the baseball stadium into a giant metal detector and turn a large chunk of U of M real estate into a restricted area.
On Wednesday, students were asked to wear their university identification around their necks; some complied. Improvised parking lots were marked out on grass fields and muddy lawns.
Ralph, a junior finance major and Florida native, said the parking changes were a hassle. Also annoying was the closure of the gym in the Wellness Center, which has become the media center. In the mirror-lined room where this correspondent typed, signs proclaimed "Please RE-RACK your weights" and "Always WIPE DOWN equipment after each use."
"But it's good for the school," Ralph said, noting that he often looked for excuses to skip the gym anyway, but would not miss the debate.
On a student shuttle bus that offered an air-conditioned alternative to walking across the sprawling campus, where geckos were about the only lifeforms using the sidewalks, a female student said of the media: "They need to go home."
A companion said she would avoid campus on Thursday, and would only watch the debate if she managed to purchase a TV by then.
Indeed, most students will need a TV set to see the debate taking place on their campus. Donna Shalala, the former Clinton Cabinet member and now the U of M president, said a mere 50 seats in the 500-seat debate audience had been set aside for the university. All the seats were going to students, she said, and the university was negotiating for more. Students that wanted a ticket participated in an essay contest.
"My problem in the Secret Service keeps switching things, so we're adjusting," Shalala said to reporters getting their credentials.
The actual site of the debate, Convocation Center, was ringed by trailers and satellite trucks. Police kept watch but did not check passes closely.
In the debate hall at around 1 p.m., staff were testing the signal lights that will tell candidates when their time is up, and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer tried out his seat. Production staff forbade photographs while Lehrer was on the stage — a red-carpeted surface with a blue backdrop adorned with a large painted eagle, bookended by large flag posters.
When the candidates take the stage on Thursday they essentially will see see a narrow, dark room with a very high ceiling from which a massive scoreboard hangs.
Normally a basketball arena, most of Convocation Center's seats have been blocked off by heavy black curtains. The debate audience will sit on about 500 green folding chairs on the floor in front of the debate stage. Behind them, network sets sit on a large riser. Above the risers, black cloth covers the windows, shrouding out the Florida sun.
Outside the hall, at the student restaurant, called the Rathskeller, junior Roxolana Woloszyn of Maplewood, N.J., said she planned on Thursday to attend a event featuring the Reform, Libertarian and Green parties at a nearby hotel before tuning into the debate. Her companion Evan Barnebey, a recent graduate, said he would have the debate on at the restaurant he manages.
Barnebey, a Philadelphia native, says the hubbub over the debate was unlike anything he'd seen on campus.
"There seems to be, like, quite a buzz. There's a lot of energy," he said. "I just wonder — how many people are going to vote?"
Woloszyn said the security and media invasion did have its downsides, "but it's just one day, I think it's worth it."
By Jarrett Murphy