EKU, Centre College compete to host 2012 presidential debate

being selected is about more than bragging rights

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2011 

The competition between Eastern Kentucky University and Centre College to host a general election debate during the 2012 presidential race isn't just a battle for bragging rights.

If either school is selected for a presidential or vice presidential debate, it will certainly put the national spotlight on the host. But it also will likely mean more alumni giving, more out-of-state applications from potential students and the economic benefit that such an event can reap for the host city.

"We know that this will mean a lot of work, but the payoff to our students, to our community, to our state can be immense," said EKU President Doug Whitlock.

Centre's enrollment, for example, has increased from 1,000 to more than 1,200 since it hosted the 2000 vice presidential debate between Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat (now Independent) Joe Lieberman. And in the year after the debate, out-of-state applications increased 25 percent from the previous year, and total applications went up 12 percent. Centre also saw an increase in alumni giving.

"It helped to increase our national profile," said Clarence Wyatt, special assistant to Centre President John Roush. "It certainly instilled a greater sense of pride in the Centre community and a greater sense of possibility. It demonstrated that Centre and Danville-Boyle County have a great ability to exceed expectations."

Wyatt confirmed Monday that Centre will seek a general election debate. EKU officials announced Tuesday that they hope to bring a debate to the new Center for the Performing Arts now under construction in Richmond. When completed in September — a year ahead of the 2012 debates — it will seat 2,012.

EKU's ace in the hole is Debra Hoskins, the arts center's executive director. She was hired earlier this year from Centre, where she was director of programs at the Norton Center for the Arts when the 2000 debate was held there.

"We talked to Debra about this (2012 debate) possibility when we interviewed her," Whitlock said after Tuesday's announcement.

Hoskins was responsible for securing application materials from the Commission on Presidential Debates, Whitlock said.

Among the amenities that the commission requires is a debate hall that has at least 17,000 square feet and is air-conditioned; a parking area close to the debate hall that has the space for as many as 30 television remote trucks and satellite trucks; and at least 3,000 hotel rooms available within 30 minutes by car.

In addition to fulfilling those requirements, EKU has space for 3,000 journalists to file stories, and the nearby Roy Kidd Stadium could become an outdoor venue with large TV screens to air the debate for people who can't get into the hall.

Whitlock said it "very quickly became apparent to us that here in a half-mile circle, we have facilities that fill those requirements."

Retired Secret Service agent Don Cox confirmed that the facilities on the ground were a good set-up for a debate, Hoskins said.

EKU also showed a video, narrated by Nick and Nina Clooney, that will accompany its proposal package. Nick Clooney, father of actor George Clooney and brother of singer Rosemary Clooney, received an honorary doctor of humanities degree from EKU in 2008.

The commission will visit potential sites in April through June, said Nancy Henrietta, associate producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission will announce applicants on its Web site on Monday, but the final decision on site selections won't happen until the fall. In 2008, there were 19 candidates to host a debate.

The honor of hosting comes with a price. EKU officials estimated that it will cost $2.5 million to $3 million, privately raised, to put on a debate. Of that figure, $1.65 million goes to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Hoskins said she doesn't know that EKU's bid heightens what appears to be a growing rivalry for talent and events between its Center for the Performing Arts and Centre's Norton Center.

"It's just like a basketball team," she said. "We're all working for the ultimate goal of winning. And the competitive spirit makes it that much more interesting, not only with anyone in Kentucky, but with universities across the country."

Wyatt would not comment on competition with EKU for the debate.

"The commission makes the selection, and I'm confident they will exercise the best judgment," Wyatt said. "We have demonstrated our ability to do this and do this well. We are confident we can do so again."

Wyatt noted that Centre has made $35 million in improvements to its campus that would make Centre a prime site.

The commission not only looks at facilities and security, but also wants to know how a host will help the commission advance its mission to provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who attended Tuesday's announcement at EKU, threw his support behind the Richmond university's bid, even though Centre is also in his district.

"Centre had the last one and did a good job, and now it's time for EKU to have it," he told the crowd.

Chandler said he "committed to EKU's effort some time ago." He said afterward that he did not know Centre intended to pursue a debate until Tuesday.

Typically there are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. In 2008, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama debated in Mississippi, Tennessee and New York. Vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin debated in St. Louis.

Kentucky last hosted a presidential debate on Oct. 7, 1984, between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville.

EKU President Whitlock said he wishes Centre well in its bid.

"I'm sure (Centre President) John Roush and his wonderful faculty and staff and Centre would reciprocate," Whitlock said.

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