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Buzz building in Oxford as debate countdown accelerates

Both political parties have had their conventions and Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have officially accepted their party’s nominations. The two are now on a campaign collision course that makes a stop in Mississippi this month. The first debate the two will have is being staged at Ole Miss the night of September 26.

The university has already held a series of lectures, seminars and roundtable discussions in advance of the debate, and several more are planned. Ole Miss’ College Republicans and College Democrats will debated each other September 4. Shortly after its conclusion, the two groups engaged in a game of laser tag in the Grove.

Ole Miss officials have held a number of meetings with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to gauge the progress of the area’s preparation and to make any necessary adjustments.

“Every time we talk with them, they tell us that we are way ahead of the other places,” Tim Walsh, who serves on the committee said. The other sites hosting debates before November’s election are Washington University in St. Louis, Belmont University in Nashville and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

“We’ve already gotten a lot of good exposure, and it is only going to increase,” said Dr. Andrew Mullins, executive assistant to Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat. “I keep telling people that we have to live in the present.”

The most high-profile event in advance of the debate was last Tuesday, when nearly 200 people became U.S. citizens in a naturalization ceremony on campus.

The number of people that will descend on Oxford and Ole Miss will be a fraction of the crowd that gathers for home football game weekend. Because of that, Oxford and Lafayette County economic officials have said that the financial impact the debate will have on the area will most likely be minimal.

The Inn at Ole Miss, the university’s revamped alumni hotel, will see an up tick. Walsh also serves as the coordinator of the capital campaign that will pay for the construction of the hotel. Walsh said last week the campaign is a little more than $3 million away from meeting its $20-million goal. “And we’re raising money every day, and continuing to solicit donors,” Walsh said. Phase I of the project included the construction of a tower and a ballroom, which will be turned into a workroom for members of each candidates’ support personnel. Phase II will focus on converting the existing lobby and porte cachere into a fitness center, and adding a pitched metal roof to match the one already atop the Triplett Alumni Center and the new tower.

The Inn will house the members of the CPD and support personnel affiliated with each candidate.

“We have reserved rooms for both parties,” Walsh said, adding that the hotel is booked solid for the debate.

Officials held a dedication ceremony for the new hotel August 29 that drew a crowd of nearly 400 people, all of whom were donors. “It was fantastic,” Walsh said. “It was nice to show off all the work that’s been done.”

Behind-the-scenes crews with the CPD and national media will begin to arrive in Oxford September 20, the day the Ole Miss football team hosts Vanderbilt. “There will have to be some major cleaning-up done pretty quickly to get ready for the first groups,” Mullins said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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