The inside view

The vice presidential debate as seen from inside the hall

It’s 7 p.m., an hour before millions of viewers will tune in to watch the biggest vice presidential debate in history from Washington University in St. Louis, 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 pulling No. 479 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 more than 400 other students, as well as 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: The two people who are about to make an appearance in a makeshift TV studio, each one hoping to somehow convince the American people that their ticket is the one they should vote for in five weeks.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska 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.” Freshman Mike Friend, a health-care management major from Boston is up here, as is Ibrahim Jimoh, a graduate student in the EMBA program from Nigeria. Leach has her cell phone out, texting “I’m inside” messages to her friends and family.

On the floor guests are taking their seats while technicians mull around and photographers jockey for position on the side of the stage. A few rows back: Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut greets former Sens. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John Danforth of Missouri warmly, like old friends at a college reunion. In another section of the floor, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill shakes hands and chats up supporters.

A buzz rises from the floor into Section B as the clock ticks down. Then the lights go out.

First, the introduction to the evening, the carrot on the stick for the University after nearly a year of planning. Janet Brown of the Commision on Presidential Debates tells the audience that coming to WUSTL is “a homecoming for us.”

The CPD’s Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. says, dryly: “For some reason this debate is getting some attention.” His colleage Paul Kirk says: “I can’t remember when the stakes have been higher.” Chancellor Mark Wrighton lauds WUSTL’s “tremendous undertaking,” and Student Union president Brittany Perez emphasizes the importance of “paying attention to the issues that are important to you.”

But 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, placed there by student volunteers the day before.

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.”

Moments later, Sen. Joe Biden enters from stage left; Gov. Sarah Palin from stage right. They meet in the middle, shake hands. “Nice to meet you,” Palin says. “It’s a pleasure,” Biden replies. “Hey can I call you Joe?” she asks.

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.”

Biden listens to the wardrobe people, the tie being among the least of his concerns at this point in the night. He has won the coin toss and has the first question from Ifill, who asks Biden if the week’s events in Congress and the bailout was the “worst of Washington or the best of Washington.”

Biden launches into an attack on the Bush Administration, a theme he will carry throughout the night. “(The bailout) is evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we’ve ever had.”

Palin looks down at the podium, taking notes and waiting her turn. Her first response indicates the theme she will go back to throughout the night — a message directly to the American people. “Go to a kid’s soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, “How are you feeling about the economy?”

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.

Biden played up his foreign policy experience and avoided the missteps he is known for; Palin played up the Washington outsider’s role and a desire to appeal directly to the American people. Both were forceful, pointed and emotional.

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,” Jimoh said.