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Candidates Convene to Debate, Finally

For all the historic footers already added to this first presidential debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, the debate itself almost didn't happen following Senator McCain's decision two days prior the event, to suspend his campaign.

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    Tonight's debate at the University of Mississippi's Oxford Campus culminates many months of preparation by the school and the state of Mississippi.

    With me to discuss how important the debate is to the people of Mississippi, I'm joined by Sid Salter, perspective editor for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

    Sid, welcome. Is there relief in Oxford now that it's known the debate is going forward?

  • SID SALTER, Clarion-Ledger:

    Very much so, Ray. I think the $5 million put in to preparing for this event and the time and the talents of the people of Oxford, the staff and students of the University of Mississippi, and no small amount of the resources of the state of Mississippi have gone forward to create something that people very much wanted to happen and to come off without a hitch. So, yes, there is a lot of relief here.


    Why all that time, money, and hard work to attract an event that puts Mississippi in the spotlight for just a couple of days?


    Well, I think it's special for this university and for this community. Forty-eight years ago, James Meredith tried to enroll here as the first African-American student. And as we know, that event ended in riots and two people died.

    And, of course, almost a half-century later now, the first African-American presidential candidate with a serious chance to be elected will launch his first debate here on this campus.

    And the people of Mississippi, I think, see this event as an opportunity to have the world take a second look at Mississippi, and particularly at Oxford and Ole Miss, for a very different reason and at a much happier event.


    Away from the campus of Ole Miss, away from the state capital and the chattering classes, do everyday Mississippians have that sense of the historical baggage that you were just talking about?


    Oh, I think very much so. I was a child in the 1960s. And when the national media came to Mississippi in the 1960s, it was usually always to record a civil rights atrocity.

    And I think my generation particularly grew up wishing, hoping, and ultimately demanding better for the people of our state so that we could showcase the good things about this state and the good people.

    And I think Ole Miss took a real excellent path in doing this. They started with Meredith and started with the riots in '62 and then advanced the discussion forward. And I think that was appropriate, because you can't get to the future without going through the past.


    Well, for all that talk of a new Mississippi, what is new about Mississippi? What is the new Mississippi?


    Well, the new Mississippi is — a half-century later, Mississippi has more African-American elected officials than any state in the union. Ole Miss is integrated at all levels, a very diverse student body.

    The symbolism that marked Ole Miss in that day, the confederate flags being waved in the stands at football games and Dixie being played, those vestiges are gone, and you have a very modern public university here, of which even fans of Mississippi State and the University of Southern Mississippi are very proud.

    And so have we overcome all of our problems in Mississippi? It would be naive to suggest that. But have we overcome a great deal of them and are we moving in the right direction? Certainly.


    Well, it must have been a pretty tense couple of hours there when it looked like for a time John McCain was going to decide to give Oxford a pass.


    I haven't had that particular feeling since the mid-'70s when I asked a girl to the junior prom and I was waiting for her answer on the telephone.

    But I think everyone was nervous and disappointed. These kids on campus, in particular, have done an awful lot of work in preparation for this and the expectations were high.

    So it was with a sense of relief and with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that they learned this morning that Senator McCain would come and that the debate would go off.


    Sid Salter of the Clarion-Ledger, thanks for being with us.


    Thank you, Ray.

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