It's hard to imagine a more enticing opportunity for political aspirants of any age than an event combining a national race, a national audience and the chance to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in government and media.
For many on campus, especially those with a partisan bent like David Miller, head of the College Democrats, and Luke Wetton, head of the College Republicans, October's vice-presidential debate at Centre College presents a dream scenario. The campus is largely quiet now, with most students dispersed to their hometowns for the summer; but when they return, the event that will likely define their time at Centre will be close at hand.
“I really think this is going to energize the campus from a political standpoint,” Wetton said. “It’s going to be an invaluable opportunity for people to really get a picture of what the political process at the national level is like.”
Michael Strysick, head of communications for Centre, said there will be opportunities for students with political interests and those who just want to be involved to fill a multitude of roles.
“All the jobs will be important,” Strysick said. “A student could be asked to drive a golf cart or work as a runner for one of the major news organizations. The college Democrats and Republicans will probably start to hear from both parties as they look for volunteers. They will need students to hold banners and follow around surrogates (for the vice-presidential candidate) who could include current and former governors, senators or even presidents. We just don’t know yet.”
Miller and Wetton, friends who helped revive largely inactive campus organizations a couple of years ago, recognize the amount of sizzle the national campaigns will bring. They also are aware of the chances they may have to both represent their school, their party and the community.
Wetton, who is from Russellville, said he has not been contacted by the Mitt Romney campaign yet, but he has spoken with Les Fugate, head of the College Republicans during the 2000 vice-presidential debate at Centre. Wetton plans to meet with Fugate this summer to get his take on what to expect. He knows activity will pick up considerably when Romney picks a running mate, which will likely be in the lead-up to the Republican National Convention in Tampa the last week in August.
Miller hails from Florida but has quickly made inroads in local and state politics. He will get the chance to be part of one of the only events during the fall that could rival the fervor of the debate. At the Kentucky Democratic Convention recently, Miller was named a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that will be held in Charlotte, N.C.
Although Kentucky looks to be a lock for the Republicans this time around, some Obama campaign organizers in the state already have been to town and toured campus. Miller said grassroots organizing will be the hallmark of Obama and Biden’s efforts this time and he is ready for whatever role he needs to play for the campaign and the debate.
“When the party calls, if it means getting water for the people working the cameras or being someone’s personal aide, I’m prepared to do it,” Miller said, noting his main responsibilities are still to the school and members of his campus organization. “At this point, I’m involved in something I truly, truly believe in and will do anything I can to help. I don’t care what it is. I’m like so many of my fellow students who just want to be a part of it.”
If the 2000 vice-presidential debate is any indication, the call is definitely coming.
Fugate, president of the College Republicans at the time, had a front-row seat as electoral politics passed into presidential history. For him, the debate and all that went with it was more than just a laboratory for observing the political process.
Fugate, who is serving on the Debate Steering Committee at Centre this time around, was in almost constant communication with the Bush-Cheney campaign workers in Austin and Louisville in 2000. The vice-presidential debate in 2000 at Centre featured Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman. Fugate was thrust into the spotlight, speaking for both the Bush-Cheney campaign and Centre to media outlets all over the United States, Europe and Asia.
“This is your chance to see if this — the campaign, the politics, all of it — is something you want to do for the rest of your life,” said Fugate, who now runs Fugate Strategic Affairs, a Louisville consulting business.
“I got to meet countless senators, representatives and other dignitaries, but also had personal conversations with many of them. If you can do a good job, this will open up doors for you forever.”
Fugate’s experience proved transformative in a direct way, as he went on to work for Secretary of State Trey Grayson at 23 years old, based almost entirely on the work Grayson saw him do during the debate. His twin brother, Wes, who ran media relations for the College Republicans in 2000, became a top aide for Ernie Fletcher, whom the brothers met during the debate.
Centre President John Roush said the college is working on ways to involve not only those on campus, but students of all ages in the region, including those from other universities. He said the impact the debate has on the lives of Centre students, and others who were involved, was profound.
“How students see themselves as part of their world, for some of them it's profoundly changed, but for all of them, we hope it is somewhat changed," Roush said. "That is what we saw happen last time."
As much as they stand to learn during the debate, students may actually have something to teach their counterparts in national politics. There have been discussions about a civility pledge taken by students but also offered to the candidates as a way of fostering the kind of respectful dialogue that characterized the 2000 debate between Cheney and Lieberman.
Miller and Wetton have done their best to set the tone.
Miller said they are good friends not necessarily in spite of their differing political views, but in part because they enjoy discussing them without the malice that exists between the more senior members of their parties. Wetton envisions people their age finding a less divisive way to get things done in the future.
“I have the highest hopes that when our generation are in positions of power 10 or 15 years from now, we will be able to find ways to find solutions to our problems through compromise,” Wetton said.