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Look out -- it's the debate that swallowed Danville

October 11, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg
  • Students pose in front of a display sponsored by the AARP in Danville, Ky.
Students pose in front of a display sponsored by the AARP in Danville, Ky. (Mitchell Landsberg / Los…)

DANVILLE, Ky. -- You can put a nationally televised debate in Denver without creating much of a stir. You can put one in New York (where the next presidential debate will be), and fuhgeddaboutit, nobody cares. But plop it down in the middle of Danville, Ky., population 16,000, and people can’t help but notice.

Central Danville took on something of a carnival atmosphere Thursday in the hours before the vice presidential debate between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Rep. Paul D. Ryan. Businesses festooned their windows with red, white and blue bunting and posters for the debate. The Values Voters bus sat parked on Main Street.  Lawns bristled with political signs. A man who swore his name really was Sam Adams stood in the street dressed as some variation on Uncle Sam, periodically turning a sign that supported the Republican ticket on one side and bashed the Democrats on the other.

Adams, 69, a retired banker who said he owns a farm near Danville, said it was the first time he'd publicly taken a political stand. "Our country's going in the wrong direction, and I've got children and grandchildren and I don't want to see them lose what we have," he said.

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A man who identified himself as Dan Clinton, 61, of St. Louis (“like Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton,” he said), stood on the sidewalk wearing a jacket entirely covered in political buttons, most of them supporting President Obama. He said he had arrived the evening before and spent the night in a local park. “I even had me some moonshine,” he said.

Nearby, the picturesque Centre College campus had been turned into an odd combination of fortress and festival. Virtually the entire campus  was ringed with concrete blocks and fencing, and the interior walkways were bifurcated with low-slung metal barriers. In the midst of all this, beneath trees tinged with the beginnings of fall color, a large lawn had been set up as a festival site, with live music, concessions and the thing that every college needs -- a booth handing out materials for the American Association of Retired People.

Students happily took bags and stickers with the AARP logo. They also took sides, many standing in front of an outdoor MSNBC broadcast booth waving signs for both the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets.

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As novel as the debate might seem, it isn't a first for Centre College, which hosted the 2000 vice presidential debate between Republican Dick Cheney and then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman. Much has changed since then, though, and college officials have noted that security measures are vastly stricter in the post- Sept. 11 world.

"The security measures have been a little bit strange for a lot of us, but it's certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Matthew Gidcomb, a senior who was among a group of college Democrats who stood on a corner to cheer when Biden's motorcade arrived at the school. Asked what he was hoping to see in the debate, Gidcomb said: "I'm hoping to see the Joe Biden who made the `noun-verb 9/11' remark in 2008, the man who is unapologetic about what he believes."

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Gidcomb was referring to Biden's put-down of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, then seeking the Republican nomination for president. “There's only three things he mentions in a sentence – a noun, a verb and Sept. 11," Biden said.

A group of young Republicans arrived on campus from nearby Rockcastle High School.

"It's kind of overwhelming," said Callie Asher, a sophomore.

Hannah Eaton, a senior, said she was hoping to see Biden humbled by Ryan, who she predicted would "show him up -- exactly what Romney did to Obama."

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