DANVILLE — The media circus you've seen surrounding major political events this year has landed at Centre College for Thursday night's vice presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
A huge portable stage for MSNBC arose behind the statue of President Lincoln — sporting his own, personalized debate credential — and a line of TV broadcast locations was forming along the sidewalk outside of the Norton Center for the Arts, where the debate takes place at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Inside, the college's gymnasium has been converted into a massive media center complete with "spin alley," where, immediately after the contest, representatives of each campaign will try to convince reporters their guy won.
It's all in preparation for Danville's international media close up.
"It offers us a chance to get out and about and talk to folks about what's on their mind and where they're at in the election," says Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who will anchor the network's coverage from Danville Thursday night along with Megyn Kelly. "There's always a lot of energy at the event."
Baier and Kelly are two of numerous Fox News personalities slated to be in Danville Thursday including Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto. But in addition to them are numerous producers and technicians behind the Fox operation.
"There are a lot of people who make it work and thousands of feet of cable," said Baier, who has taken over anchoring duties this year following the retirement of Brit Hume. "I don't know how many people we're bringing — more than a hundred."
CBS News is sending only two on-air reporters to the debate — Nancy Cordes covering the Barack Obama and Biden ticket and chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford covering the Mitt Romney and Ryan campaign. But supporting them is a crew of producers, technicians and off-air reporters for the broadcast that will be anchored by Scott Pelly in New York.
"We're setting up a mission control," said Tim Gaughan, CBS News director of digital news gathering and special events. "It's essentially a remote bureau ready to do anything we need."
At the MSNBC tent, approximately a dozen technicians were working to set up the broadcast stage where shows such as The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd and Chris Matthews' Hardball will originate Thursday. The network is offering free coffee and network souvenirs to people who come watch from the lawn between the stage and the Lincoln statue.
"Having the audience in the background gives a sense of place and excitement," says Ray Herbert, senior director for MSNBC.
He recalled, "the energy in Charlotte was fantastic," referring to the Democratic convention. Of course that was a single-party event and MSNBC tends to be favored by Democratic viewers.
One of the unique distinctions of the debates is that they are some of the few times the candidates come together.
"The interaction is explosive in and of itself," Baier says.
Gaughan points out that from a coverage standpoint, "it is one of the only times you have both campaigns in the same place. So we really want to make sure we give each equal time. The debates give viewers a unique chance to assess the candidates."
And the debate in Danville is giving locals a unique chance to be a part of the event.
Public radio outlet WEKU-FM 88.9 is staging a round table discussion on the vice presidential debate that will be aired at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. with journalists from NPR, the BBC, the Huffington Post and McClatchy Newspapers, the parent company of the Herald-Leader.
"We are responding to what the big guys are doing," WEKU news director Charles Compton said. "We know they've got the event covered, so we're saying, 'how can we add to that?'"
The broadcast is being picked up by numerous outlets across the country, including the public radio station in Washington D.C.
While there are all kinds of broadcast and print media in Danville this week, the media that is making itself felt most acutely these days is social media, which Gaughan and others say the networks use both to convey their own coverage and listen to what people are saying about the event.
Baier, like almost every major news anchor these days, makes heavy use of Twitter in following debate coverage.
"We can monitor how people respond and gauge how they are reacting, right away," says Baier, who notes Fox is using the Twitter Political Index to gauge sentiment for the candidates during the debate.
In last week's Presidential Debate from Denver, Baier says, "Twitter, along with other analysis, said Gov. Romney had won, and their was a lot of angst about President Obama's performance ... some of that surfaced right away on Twitter, and it's real time."
And it's not just viewers and media using Twitter. Groups are using it to try to make their points and get them heard during the debate.
"Before each debate, we have activists who are watching out for our issues," says Rehma Mehta, senior advisor for campaigns for the American Association of Retired Persons, who coordinates social media for the organization. "And after, we are asking if they thought it was informative. Did they address their issues."
Mehta acknowledges many are caught off guard by Twitter and AARP, "but seniors are the fastest growing segment of users in social media. They are very engaged."
Students on campus said they were becoming more engaged in the coming media onslaught as midterms finished up Wednesday.
"It's crazy, this all happened overnight," said Olivia Keller, 20, a junior from Fort Mitchell as she and a few friends took pictures of the MSNBC stage. "The fences and barricades have been up for a while, but this all just started happening yesterday."
Centre President John Roush, tooling around campus on a golf cart, said the media contingent was much bigger than when the college hosted the 2000 debate between Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman.
And as quickly as all of it sprung up, it will come down.
"It's not a lot of time," says Baier, who is slated to arrive in Kentucky Wednesday night. "We'll probably have one dinner in town tomorrow after my show, but then I leave Friday morning."
Some will have a little work to do.
Surveying the MSNBC stage, Herbert said, "It will take us about eight hours to break it down. Then it's off to Hofstra," the Hempstead, N.Y., University where the next Presidential debate takes place Tuesday.
And the circus will follow.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.