Arizona State University and Tempe will host the last presidential debate in 2004, giving the East Valley a front-row seat to the final weeks of the campaign for the White House.
The face-to-face clash between President Bush and his Democratic rival will be broadcast Oct. 13 from ASU’s Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, state and local officials announced Thursday. The Tempe event will be the last of three debates organized by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates before the Nov. 2 general election.
During a joint announcement in Phoenix, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano described the debate as the “Super Bowl of politics,” while Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano said the “eyes and ears of the world” will be on his city.
“We’re honored and we’ll be ready for this important and historic role,” Giuliano said.
Napolitano said Tempe’s selection reaffirms Arizona has emerged onto the national political stage. Arizona’s population growth since 1990 has turned it into a swing state that helped Bush as a Republican win his first term but also went for former President Bill Clinton as a Democrat in 1996.
Last month, Phoenix successfully held one of six nationwide primary debates for all of the Democrat presidential candidates because of its early Feb. 3 presidential primary.
Hosting the last general election debate, though, will raise the state’s prestige to a new level, the governor said. An estimated 37.7 million people watched the final commission debate before the 2000 election.
“We have an event that will be broadcast nationally and internationally that will show off Arizona at a beautiful time of year,” Napolitano said. “There’ll be a lot of political buzz about that. There’ll be a lot of excitement in the air.”
As a winning host, ASU must raise $1.5 million to cover debate expenses with half paid as cash to the commission. ASU President Michael Crow said he expects Arizona businesses and prominent individuals to eagerly show their support for this rare political spotlight.
“Fund-raising won’t be a problem,” Crow said.
The timing of the Tempe debate adds some intrigue for political observers. Top Republicans and Democrats are predicting a nail-biting campaign even before Bush’s challenger has been selected. Early voting for the 2004 general election in Arizona already will be under way for more than two weeks when the candidates take the Gammage stage.
“None of us know what will be happening next October,” Crow said. “But we know it will be tense. It will be a contest. It will be the kind of thing that presents the best that our democracy has to offer.”
Napolitano said the debate will be a pivotal moment for Arizona as a state because it will be only the fourth event held in the West in the commission’s 15-year existence — the first outside California.
Giuliano said about 2,500 journalists will descend on the East Valley during the week before the debate, along with an estimated 1,000 people from the commission staff and political parties backing their candidates.
The Tempe Mission Palms hotel will be the nerve center for the debate commission, but up to a dozen other Valley resorts and hotels are expected to be among the official host sites.
Still, the economic impact will be less than the two national party conventions held every four years to officially pick the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The debate also will generate only a fraction of the money brought in by other national events such as the Super Bowl or the annual Fiesta Bowl, said Tom Rex, director of ASU’s Center for Business Research.
Giuliano, a Republican, has been in a unique position to spearhead the yearlong effort to land one of the debates. He has served as Tempe mayor for more than seven years while keeping his regular job as ASU’s vice president of community relations.
The bid was aided with strong support from other politicians in both major parties including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Napolitano as the state’s top elected Democrat.
The debate is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Other details will be determined by the commission later, including the debate’s format and how many tickets will be available to Arizona residents. Gammage normally seats about 3,000 people.
The other presidential debates will be Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Florida and Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis. The commission also will sponsor a vice presidential debate Oct. 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.