News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

November 28, 2010

Mark Bennett: Hosting 2012 presidential debate would benefit Indiana and the country

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana became a player in the presidential selection process in the 2008 campaign.

The state could serve as center stage in 2012, and should seize the opportunity.

That’s not a reference to Gov. Mitch Daniels or U.S. Rep. Mike Pence running for the Oval Office, though both are possibilities. Instead, one of the 2012 presidential debates could happen on Hoosier soil. Purdue and Indiana universities seem serious about serving as a host site and intend to submit applications to the Commission on Presidential Debates when that process opens on Jan. 3.

A debate inside Purdue’s Elliott Hall of Music — whether it involves Daniels or Pence or some out-of-state GOP pick like Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee facing off against President Obama — would benefit Indiana and the country. The same goes for an Obama-Daniels duel at IU or some other Hoosier college.

“I think our decision-makers need to know Indiana a heck of a lot better than they do,” said Carolyn Curiel, a Purdue communications professor whose students are working to bring a 2012 debate to that West Lafayette campus.

“It’s an amazing place that’s really unknown to much of the American public,” she added, “and also the policy- and decision-makers in Washington.”

Candidates in the 2008 cycle scrambled to find Indiana on their campaign maps when the state’s primary — usually an afterthought because of its late timing, in May — suddenly became relevant. The duel for the Democratic nomination between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton stayed tight, meaning Hoosiers could decide the winner. Thus, Obama, Clinton, their families and other high-profile supporters poured into Indiana towns, including Terre Haute.

The state seemed to make a connection with Obama, who in the ’08 general election became the first Democrat since 1964 to carry Indiana. During the campaign, he made 40 stops here, according to The Associated Press. Since taking office, he’s visited Indiana four times, including last week’s trip to Kokomo, where its auto industry has recovered since the federal bailouts of GM and Chrysler.

The staging of a presidential debate on a Hoosier college campus would expose not only the two candidates to the state, but also 3,000 journalists and, thus, a worldwide audience. Besides the old-school method of debate watching, television, an even larger number of eyes could view the event online, assuming the format evolves to accommodate the planet’s changing technological appetites.

“It’s like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl,” Curiel said.

She speaks from experience. Curiel worked as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and helped prep him for a 1996 debate against Republican challenger Bob Dole. The televised candidate showdowns, and the Commission on Presidential Debates, have long been criticized for various inadequacies, including a lack of actual debating, the exclusion of third party candidates and a failure to fully involve public participation through the Internet. As Curiel’s communications students continue working to submit a debate-site bid, she understands those flaws.

The process for the debates “is not always what we want them to be,” Curiel said, “but it’s the best thing we have.”

Choosing the sites is only the beginning of a complex process.

Since the commission formed in 1988, through an agreement by the two major parties, it has chosen college campuses as hosts. “Since debates are about education, it seemed logical to take them to educational institutions,” Janet Brown, executive director of the commission since its inception, said in a telephone interview.

Those schools should be ready for some significant disruptions, including campuswide involvement, a long to-do list for the staff and students and the strong possibility of last-minute changes. “When we roll into town, we put a big dent into people’s schedules,” Brown said.

She and the commission give prospective schools a realistic view of the experience. For example, they’ll need air-conditioned venues because of the television and media equipment involved.

Nonetheless, all of the host colleges from one of the commission's presidential debates reapplied to repeat their roles four years later, Brown said.

So far, 10 schools have inquired about hosting a 2012 debate, she said. In 2008, 19 colleges made formal applications. In the end, the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., entertained debates between Obama and Republican John McCain. The vice presidential candidates, Palin and Joe Biden, squared off at Washington University at St. Louis — the campus that has hosted the most debates.

The universities in the ’12 lineup could deliver debates unlike any before, if the commission implements unique ideas. One, suggested by the nonpartisan TechPresident.com in 2008, would allow the public to use telephones or the Web to assess how well the candidates are answering the questions, in real time. The use of new media such as YouTube and MySpace in the 2008 primary-season debates should become part of the official general-election debates in 2012. The inclusion of a third-party candidate, looking for legitimacy, could also force Democrats and Republicans to directly answer questions.

The chance for Purdue students to participate in such a historic moment in the democratic process is too compelling to pass up, Curiel said.

“I see no downside to this,” she said, “and hard work is not a downside, where I come from. It’s a good thing.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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