Drexel cramming to ace debate preps

Preparations proceed in the lobby and atrium at the entrance to the auditorium in the Main Building. At least seven TV programs will be transmitting from several locations on campus.

For Drexel, planning D-Day is no trip to the beach.

As host of tonight's Democratic presidential debate, the university has spent the last month coordinating a plethora of logistical details.

Lucky thing Drexel is so strong in engineering.

"It's like we're setting up a small city," says Brian Keech, vice president of government and community relations. "There are literally a thousand moving parts."

As usual, most of them involve television.

MSNBC's telecast of the 9-to-11 p.m. debate is only one of at least seven programs that will be telecast live from various campus locations throughout today. NBC's total price tag: $300,000, give or take.

An army of 100-plus technicians, producers and directors began arriving Friday. With a satellite truck, a production truck, 175 lighting fixtures and 10 cameras, among other equipment.

Having broadcast five presidential debates this season, NBC has it down to a science. Everything for the candidates must be exactly the same, from the lighting to the lecterns.

"We take this very, very seriously," says Phil Alongi, executive producer of NBC News' special events.

"It's critical that we put on a production everyone deems fair and balanced, though that's not a phrase NBC normally uses," he adds, in a not-so-subtle reference to rival Fox News Channel.

The 842-seat auditorium in Drexel's historic Main Building, built in 1891, is on the small side for his purposes, Alongi says, so changes were made.

The stage was extended 16 feet to accommodate the seven candidates and co-moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Two original chandeliers were removed to ensure equal sight lines.

For the candidates, second-floor Main Building offices of Drexel's senior administrators will serve as "green rooms."

Each will be stocked with coffee, juice and fruit. All other victuals must be ordered from Drexel's caterer, at the campaigns' expense, says university spokesman Phil Terranova.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, will set up in an office on the third floor. As befitting their status - and salaries - Williams and Russert will share the president's conference room on the first floor.

Main Building is at 32d and Chestnut Streets. Williams will anchor NBC Nightly News from the sixth-floor terrace of the student center, near 33d and Chestnut, at 6:30.

At NBC's suggestion, Drexel hung a huge school banner from nearby Matheson Hall. It will be seen in the background every time Williams is on camera. (The Drexel Dragon and the NBC Peacock. What a zoo!)

Matthews will host three live editions of Hardball, at 5, 7 and 11 p.m., from the Drexel Quad, on Chestnut between 32d and 33d Streets.

MSNBC will also report from that site at various times, beginning at 9 a.m. with NBC's Andrea Mitchell (a Penn alum and board of trustees member) anchoring an hour. Norah O'Donnell will do the same at 3 p.m.

Terranova, a 30-year Drexel veteran, says the debate is the biggest event to hit campus since the visit of former Chinese President Jing Zemin - 10 years ago, to the day.

There are 300 student volunteers and the same number of credentialed media representatives, Terranova says. Reporters will file their stories from the student center in a room equipped with 11 TV monitors.

The debate is a tough ticket for Drexel students and faculty. More than 3,000 signed up to participate in a lottery for the university's allotment of 250 tickets.

It also took a lottery to win tickets for Drexel's "watch party" at Mandell Theater, with 425 seats. All seven candidates are expected to stop by and say hello after the debate, according to Terranova.

By the way, Drexel is not getting a cent from NBC or the Democratic National Committee, Terranova says. He won't discuss the university's tab, which includes extra security personnel. (Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama travel with Secret Service protection.)

As for the actual debate, Williams and Russert both say it will be no problem coming up with new questions for the candidates.

"The issues don't go away. Sometimes you have to re-ask the questions in a different framework," says Russert, moderator of Meet the Press. "The past two debates we've done have been pretty freewheeling."

Williams says he solicits questions from numerous sources, including troops in Iraq, his neighbors, and "my cheapest and most accurate focus group - my three sisters, my wife and my kids."


Debate Logistics

The Democratic presidential debate at Drexel University tonight at 9 p.m. will cause some disruptions in the area.

Chestnut Street between 31st and 33d Streets will be closed from 10 a.m. today until 3 a.m. tomorrow.

The Main Building complex at 32d and Chestnut, site of the debate, will shut down at noon for all purposes not directly related to the event. Classes and meetings will be canceled, rescheduled or moved. The Cresse Student Center will be closed all day.

A "campaign visibility area" will open at 4 p.m. on the south side of Chestnut Street at 31st. This is the only area where supporters of candidates or others with political points to make will be allowed to demonstrate.

- Larry Eichel

Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.