Photo of the debate stage in Veale Center in 2004

An experienced host

As preparations continue for the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, we look back on CWRU’s time in the national spotlight hosting the 2004 vice presidential debate.

When the Health Education Campus appears live on screens around the world Tuesday, Sept. 29, during the first presidential debate, the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion may be unrecognizable to those who have been there before.

A team of planners from the Commission on Presidential Debates is installing cameras, a stage and other essential fixtures, striking a patriotic tone with the decor. Hosting a presidential debate requires a true transformation, as those who were on campus in 2004 can tell you.

A Look Back 

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, of that year, Case Western Reserve hosted the vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and John Edwards, converting the Horsburgh Gym at the Veale Center into the debate venue.

“You would never have known it was a basketball court” is what numerous people recall thinking when they first saw the carpeting across the gym’s wood floors and three camera platforms installed around a stage. In this setting, the candidates sat before a deep blue backdrop with dozens of lights installed overhead.

Photo of lanyards full of political pins next to a button promoting the "Race at Case"

The fieldhouse at Veale Center was also carpeted and transformed to serve as Spin Alley, welcoming reporters from all over the world who interviewed politicians and other notable figures. Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer were among those in attendance, seen riding golf carts from the CNN outpost by the Cleveland Museum of Art to campus by more than a few people. 

For many volunteers, sightings like these heightened the excitement of the day, as was the case for Kyra Rothenberg, an instructor in psychological sciences. In her first year of teaching at the time, Rothenberg was assigned to check in members of the media, including Cooper himself. 

“I was so star-struck that when I handed him his badge and materials, I forgot to have him sign in. I had to chase him down for him to sign the register,” she said. “I was taken not only by Mr. Cooper’s willingness to wait for me, but also, I later learned, for the exceptional kindness, appreciation, and respect he showed to all of the students he encountered during that time.”

A Student’s Perspective

Photo of a student sitting in Thwing Center next to a sign that says "National Student Debate"

On the day of the 2004 event, classes were canceled so students such as Shaan Gandhi, a sophomore chemistry and biochemistry major at the time, could volunteer and attend debate-related events. Now a principal at a venture capital firm, Gandhi recalls throwing himself into the opportunity, serving as an usher and participating in a mock debate with students from universities around the country. Moderated by Judy Woodruff, the debate portrayed Gandhi as one of four students presenting the Republican side, leading him to later be interviewed on CNN in a video that is still available on CSPAN’s website.

“The school wanted as many people as possible to get involved,” said Gandhi, who was one of the few students who got to attend the debate, too. The experience was a highlight of his time at Case Western Reserve, and he remembers the energy and enthusiasm on campus fondly.

The Event’s Logistics

As will be the case even more so this year due to health and safety restrictions for the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the 2004 event was extremely limited, with credentials required to be within the boundaries established on campus and an additional level needed to access the debate hall. 

Everyone had to be screened and pass through a metal detector to enter the Veale Center— the site of the debate itself—but Freiberger Field, Strosacker Auditorium and Thwing Center bustled with speakers and events. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Mo Rocca and Sean Combs were on hand. Pancakes, bologna sandwiches and lots of party foods were served. 

Photo of stars and stripes projected onto a campus building and a sign hanging that says "The Race at Case"

More than 300 students, faculty and staff were part of the volunteer corps, with responsibilities ranging from handing scripts to CNN anchors and driving media personalities around campus in a golf cart.

“Hands down, [it was] one of the biggest, glitziest events ever to happen on campus in my career, and I’ve been here 30 years,” said Colleen Barker-Williamson, director of student activities and leadership in the Division of Student Affairs.

Arlet Wright, director of Thwing Center, has similar memories, recalling the pride on campus as it was the first time many people had felt part of a national event of that size. “We were all focused on making CWRU look its best,” she said.

Eric Dicken, now assistant vice president of development for programs, events and protocol, was new to the university when he was asked to help organize this volunteer effort. Like many who took part, he remembers the pride and excitement of that time. 

“Students were hanging out on Freiberger Field—the campus was full of energy, excitement, and life. There was still a lot of activity, and the campus looked amazing,” he said, recalling driving through campus after the end of the day.

While COVID-19 concerns have curtailed any plans for crowds or in-person events surrounding this year’s debate, the 2004 event—known as The Race at Case—put Cleveland and the university at the center of a national political event.

The first presidential debate of 2020 will take place live from the Eric and Sheila Samson Pavilion at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 9 p.m. EST.