By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
DANVILLE — The usually beautiful pastoral Centre College campus was transformed Wednesday as heavy security and hordes of media descended on the small, liberal arts campus in preparation of Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.
Several city streets were closed Wednesday evening and more were to be closed early Thursday, according to Kentucky State Police Trooper Paul Blanton, Public Affairs Officer for the Richmond Post.
Blanton said KSP and its Commercial Vehicle Enforcement division had more than 100 officers “from all across the state, from Mayfield (in far western Kentucky) to Pikeville (in far eastern Kentucky).” He said their primary job is to manage traffic flow and control access to the debate location.
Much of campus is hidden from the view of passing motorists because of concrete barriers, topped by chain link fences which are draped with canvass blocking the view. Beginning Thursday, no one without security clearance or media credentials will be allowed into that area.
Inside all that security at the Norton Center for the Arts, where the debate will occur, staff and stand-ins for Republican Paul Ryan and Democratic incumbent Vice President Joe Biden got a walk-through early Wednesday morning.
Some may have been taken aback by the visage they encountered watching from an alcove above the stage. The portrait of Centre grad and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson stared back at them.
The Phi Delta Theta fraternity brought “Dead Fred” to the debate hall Tuesday, continuing a long tradition of the fraternity to bring him to all major campus events including football games.
Dead Fred was lucky — seats are hard to come by.
Some staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, the Senate Minority Leader, were scurrying Wednesday trying to find him a ticket. Centre President John Roush planned to conduct a lottery for Centre students for about 100 tickets for the debate.
Outside the hall, dozens of broadcast reporters and videographers set up for broadcast shots and, in the rear of the building, there is a sea of broadcast satellite trucks and trailers.
Jeff Alexander, a technician with College Cable of Nicholasville said his crews have laid 4,000 feet of fiber optic cable over the past three months to get ready to handle the technology needs of all 3,200 reporters, photographers, cameramen and technicians expected by Thursday.
He said the company had put in between 400 and 500 new cable drops “and thousands of feet of regular cable.”
But like those trying to get into the hall, Alexander said all his hard work doesn’t guarantee he’ll even be able to see the debate on television.
“We won’t get to see much of the debate at all,” Alexander said. “We’ll be too busy monitoring the system.”
Across the street in Sutcliffe Hall, reporters filed into the media hall a few at a time to find their seats and check to see the Internet and phone connections they purchased for the event operated properly.
Walking along the rows of tables — which will accommodate around 550 reporters — a visitor finds reserved spots for media from Japan and dozens of other foreign countries and hears conversations in Nordic languages.
They’ll all watch the debate on 50 or so flat-screen televisions set up throughout the room. Upstairs in the gymnasium normally reserved for the Centre Colonel basketball teams, dozens of curtained-off cubicles await broadcast crews in “spin alley.”
Following the debate Thursday, that will be the scene of those nationally broadcast interviews viewers are accustomed to taged after political events. Major political figures will stand under placards bearing their names, waiting for a yell from a network official seeking an interview.
Some national media were working and broadcasting from campus Wednesday.
MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews was setting up outside the college library next door to Sutcliffe Hall where the show broadcasted from Wednesday.
But the real influx is expected Thursday. Perhaps as many as 8,000 are anticipated at Festival Field, outside the secure zone, for food, music and then Thursday night 50 or 60 flat-screen televisions on which they can view the debate.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.