National political spotlight to shine again on WUSTL

2008 vice presidential debate Oct. 2 marks fifth selection by CPD

Calling it “one of the great traditions of Washington University,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced during a news conference Nov. 19 that the University will host the 2008 vice presidential debate, scheduled for 8 p.m. Oct. 2.

This is the fifth consecutive time the University has been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to host a debate. Washington University is the only institution to host more than two debates.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announces the University’s selection as the site for the Oct. 2, 2008, vice presidential debate. With him in the Field House of the Athletic Complex – where the debate will be held – are Jennifer Sisto, speaker of the Congress of the South 40, and Neil Patel, Student Union president.

In 1992, the University hosted the first three-candidate presidential debate in CPD history, was selected to host a presidential debate in 1996 that eventually was canceled, hosted the third and last presidential debate of the 2000 campaign season and the second of three presidential debates before the 2004 election.

“It is a privilege to once again play an important role in the American electoral process and to be chosen from among 19 applicants to be one of the hosts and the site of the only vice presidential debate for the 2008 election season,” Wrighton said during the news conference at the Field House, which by next October will be transformed into a debate site.

The debate will focus on both domestic and foreign policy and will be administered by a single moderator.

“These one-of-a-kind events are great experiences for our students, they contribute to a national understanding of important issues, and they allow us to bring national and international attention to our great community,” Wrighton said.

All tickets to attend the debate are assigned by the CPD. As was done in 1992, 2000 and 2004, any debate tickets that may be assigned to the University will be distributed only to full-time students, who will be selected in a University-wide lottery, Wrighton said.

Students also will have the opportunity to volunteer to become involved with the debate as well as take part in the political conversations that surround such an event.

The debate “is going to be a part of the campus culture,” said Jennifer Sisto, a sophomore bioengineering major and speaker of the Congress of the South 40. “Students will become more involved in discussions outside of the debate itself, and clearly after the debate there will be a lot of reaction around campus.”

Neil Patel, a senior in Arts & Sciences and Student Union president, remembers the impact the 2004 debate had on both him and the campus. That fall, Patel, then a freshman, decided he would major in political science rather than business.

“The current events at the time and the debate just brought out an interest that I didn’t have before,” he said. “The debate is just one day, but the debate arena, the hype around it, lasts for weeks. It’s in the paper. On your way to class, you see public figures.

“Living in St. Louis, it’s more difficult to get involved in national politics than it would be living in D.C.,” he said. “Having the debate here is like dropping D.C. in the middle of St. Louis.” Both Sisto and Patel participated in the news conference.

The University again is offering the same facilities that were made available for the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 debates, which include the Field House, Francis Gymnasium and other areas of the Athletic Complex. Francis Gym and Francis Field were the sites of the 1904 World Olympic Games, the first Olympics played in the Western Hemisphere.

Earlier on Nov. 19, Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairmen of the CPD, announced the sites of the three presidential and one vice presidential debate for the 2008 general election.

The presidential debates will be held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Sept. 26; at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 7; and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Oct. 15.

The CPD, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in 1987, is responsible for selecting the venues and producing the presidential debates.

The Field House was the site of the first nationally televised three-candidate presidential debate in 1992, featuring President George Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. That year, the University had just seven days to transform the hardwood-floor gymnasium of the Field House into a red-carpeted debate hall.

In 2000, the University hosted a “town-hall meeting” debate between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, during which candidates took questions from an audience of 140 undecided St. Louis-area voters selected by the Gallup organization.

The town-hall format again was used when President George W. Bush squared off against Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 debate at Washington University. ABC News’ Charles Gibson served as moderator.

Sitting on stools surrounded by the 140 town-hall participants — a group of undecided St. Louis-area voters selected by the Gallup organization — Bush and Kerry discussed topics such as the war in Iraq, jobs, health care and abortion.

Besides the town-hall participants, an estimated 900 people — including media, dignitaries, invited guests and more than 200 WUSTL students — viewed the 90-minute debate from the Field House. Millions more worldwide watched on television.

In her introduction of the 2004 debate, CPD executive director Janet Brown praised Washington University as being the “gold standard” for debate sites.

According to the CPD, worldwide television viewership of the vice presidential debate is comparable to the presidential debates, with the exception of the first presidential debate, which always commands the highest viewing numbers.

For more information about debate site selection or debate formats, please visit the CPD’s website, For photos, a video or more information about presidential debates hosted by the University, please visit