Inside the debate hall

It’s 7 p.m., an hour before millions of viewers will tune in to watch the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history from Washington University, and in Section B, Row 10 in the upper bleachers of the Field House, Gwen Leach, a senior anthropology-American culture studies major in Arts & Sciences from Columbus, Ohio, is taking her seat after receiving a ticket in the student lottery.

“It is so great to be here,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I’d get inside.”

But inside she is, along with 431 other students, campaign workers, invited guests and select members of the media who are about to witness in person an event that has captured the imagination of an entire nation — and beyond.

The reason: to watch two people who are about to debate in a makeshift TV studio, each one hoping to somehow convince the American people that his or her ticket is the one they should vote for in five weeks.

Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin are somewhere in the building while the Field House buzz begins. The stage is set, the flood lights are on. The audience is strolling in and taking their seats, amid flashing cameras and the familiar pose of amateur photographers holding the digital at a half-arm’s length.

It’s debate night, and the excitement in the Field House is palpable.

Up in Section B, students who were strangers are talking like old friends, predicting the outcome and sharing in the excitement of being on the inside. “You can see everything from up here,” says Kate Falahee, a second-year law student from Ann Arbor, Mich. “This is better than being on the floor.” A buzz rises from the floor into Section B as the clock ticks down. Then the lights go out.

It’s the debate the audience has come to see, and the first appearance belongs to the referee, debate moderator Gwen Ifill. Ifill, who broke her ankle two days earlier, hobbles onto the stage and to her desk in front of the podiums with the help of two hefty WUSTL football players. “By the way, I fell,” she says. “I wasn’t pushed.”

She turns in her chair to face the audience and lays down the rules in a clear, strong voice. If she’s in pain from her ankle she gives no indication: No cell phones, no shout outs, no applause. “Anything you would do at the circus, don’t do here.”

Under her desk, a pillow for her ankle had been placed by student volunteers. And then a few minutes of silence until …

The voice of NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd in a makeshift studio at the back of the Field House is the first indication the debate is about to start. It’s 8 p.m. sharp, and the networks are going live. Katie Couric follows a few seconds later welcoming the television audience to her network in a hushed tone until Ifill says, in a clear strong voice: “Good evening from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.”

Palin is wearing a black suit; Biden a black suit with a light blue tie. Earlier in the day at his dress rehearsal, attended by the students who were stand-ins for the candidates the day before, he asked senior Julia Latash if she preferred the dark blue tie or the light blue. “The dark blue,” she told him. “But what do I know? Listen to your wardrobe people.”

Throughout the next 90 minutes they debated the economy, climate change, carbon emissions, same-sex marriage, an exit strategy in Iraq, diplomacy in Iran and Pakistan, and the role of the vice presidency. Both candidates listened intently and took notes on legal pads while the other was talking.

In the end, the students in Section B thought both candidates had done well, but many remained undecided on how they would vote. “It was a thrill just being here,” graduate student Ibrahim Jimoh said.