Phila.'s presidential debate set for Oct. 30

Posted: September 17, 2007

In the early phases of the 2008 presidential campaign, the Philadelphia area hasn't received much attention, which isn't surprising since the party nominations may be decided long before the Pennsylvania primary in April.

But attention will be paid for at least one day next month. Or so it seems.

On Oct. 30, the eight Democratic candidates are scheduled to come to Philadelphia for a televised debate, the first presidential debate in the city since 1976.

This event has been on the national political calendar since May 16. At that time, the Democratic National Committee put out a list of dates and locations for six officially sanctioned debates for the second half of this year.

Since then, there has been nary an official word about the Philadelphia event, which is now just over six weeks away. And few unofficial words.

Last week, officials at the sponsoring organizations, which include MSNBC and the state Democratic Party, offered assurances that the event was going to happen and that a formal announcement would come soon.

Among the questions to be answered is where the event will be held.

One source familiar with the situation indicated Friday that the likely venue was Temple University's Liacouras Center. Another said that was by no means a sure thing.

State Democratic officials say they hope the debate - one in a long series for the presidential candidates this year - will have an immediate impact on the local political scene.

"It's going to take place exactly one week before this year's general election," said Mary Isenhour, executive director of the state party. "Our hope is that it will rally the troops for the statewide judicial elections and help us with turnout."

Democrats need a healthy turnout in Philadelphia - where the mayor's race and most of the council races are not seen as competitive - to improve their chances to win the two Supreme Court and three Superior Court seats on the Nov. 6 ballot.

In that regard, some of the presidential candidates might attend political events in the area before and after the debate.

Though the national Democrats are not worrying about Pennsylvania in the context of winning the nomination, they do care about it in terms of winning the presidency.

The conventional wisdom is that no Democrat can capture the White House without the state. The Democrats have carried it the last four times, although the margin in 2004 was only 2.5 percent of the total vote cast.

Expected to participate Oct. 30 are Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, former Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Mike Gravel of Alaska, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

This would be the third time a televised, national political debate has been held in Philadelphia.

On Sept. 23, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford and his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, came to the Walnut Street Theater for the first of their three debates that fall.

That encounter marked the first time in U.S. history that a president had agreed to debate and only the second time (after 1960) that any televised debates had been held.

It is remembered largely for a failure in the sound system that left Ford and Carter standing at their lecterns in uncomfortable silence for nearly half an hour.

On Oct. 11, 1984, the now-demolished Convention Center in University City was host to a vice presidential debate between incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever on a major-party national ticket.

And the third such debate in the city's history is scheduled for Oct. 30.

As a spokeswoman for MSNBC put it in an e-mail last week: "Additional details to follow."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or

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