How to Prep for the Debate


MANCHESTER, N.H. (Jan. 7, 2012) — Building stage sets. Unloading mountains of electronic equipment. Parking a fleet of news trucks. Scribbling scores of to-do lists. Making Diane Sawyer’s dinner.

It’s all in a day’s—and a year’s—work as Saint Anselm College got ready for its seventh presidential debate. On a Saturday, just hours before the cameras rolled, the campus was aglow with lights and action.

“There’s so much labor for all that could go wrong,” said Neil Levensque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. In marvelous understatement, he added, “It is not an easy task.”

Saint Anselm has held primary debates since 1984. This is Levensque’s first as choreographer of this complicated ballet. He began planning a year ago. Recent CNN and Huntsman/Gingrich debates at Saint Anselm were dress rehearsals for tonight’s gala. He’s expecting the five major candidates, an overflow audience and 800 reporters.

All of that has generated a treasure chest of experience for students. One hundred volunteered to unload trucks, greet guests, run errands. An additional 80 students got temporary jobs with the four networks.

One student volunteer, Ryan Sandford, works in the Saint Anselm communications office. “Some of my friends are stand-ins. Others are helping with the TV crews,” he said. “The ones that aren’t here are jealous.”

Sandford, a freshman, called himself a “jack of all trades” volunteer, ready to do anything. The best part of his experience, he said, was watching reporters. For example, he worked with reporters from The New York Times during the Huntsman/Gingrich debate, running errands and digging out tid-bits of information.

“The coolest thing,” he said, “is not only to see the politicians but to get to see behind the scenes—to see reporters working and asking questions.”

One FOX set-up crew member—who would not give his name—also described his hectic work schedule. He is working swing shifts starting at 2:30 a.m. for the two weeks he’ll be in New Hampshire. “The 12-hour shift is easy,” he said, “but it’s not being home that is hard.” He was in Iowa for 2 months and will leave New Hampshire for South Carolina.

Saint Anselm’s director of facilities, Bill Furlong, coordinated the physical logistics. By midday Saturday, he’d nearly lost his voice. “We are so busy,” he croaked. One of his employees, Barbara Stackpole, was charged with feeding the news networks. She couldn’t take a break. Someone had to go cook Diane Sawyer’s dinner.

What was she having? Nobody had time to tell. “Just email us those questions,” rasped Furlong hoarsely.

Bon appetit, Diane.

(Elizabeth Carey, a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at Syracuse University, is reporting for the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)


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