UNF prepares for GOP debate

Students help setup CNN press room

CNN crews began the process of turning UNF's Lazzara Performance Hall into a venue for a nationally televised Republican presidential debate.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - All eyes will be on the University of North Florida in Jacksonville ahead of the last Republican debate on Thursday night.

Lenny Curry, Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the gravity of the debate isn't lost on anyone.

"It's the Super Bowl of debates," said Curry. "It's a big deal."

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who is moderating the debate, hosted his show from the UNF campus Wednesday night, as did CNN's John King.

"I expect the final four to come out and really do their best because the stakes really are enormous," said Blitzer.

Both anchors drew larges crowds of UNF students, including Rich McDaniel, who has been following the excitement on campus.

"You can definitely see the news vans lining up more and more every day," said McDaniel. "It's been cool. It's been pretty neat to see a little spotlight on UNF."

UNF may not be as well known as other universities that have hosted debates, but things are running according to plan.

"All the technicians are in there working. Everybody is excited," said Curry.

Curry was one of a few who were allowed to tour the set Wednesday evening.

While Curry was taking his tour, Blitzer was off to a debate meeting.

"I'm not going to tip off what we are going to talk about. I want all four candidates to come in guessing what the subjects are going to be," said Blitzer.

Candidates to stump in Jacksonville

Ahead of the debate, the candidates will be stumping in Jacksonville.

Mitt Romney is scheduled to campaign on the southside and visit area businesses, while New Gingrich is expected to speak at a veterans event at UNF.

Neither Rick Santorum or Ron Paul have announced their plans.

Blitzer said what they do during the day isn't as important as how they do Thursday evening.

"Attitudes change. There's still a lot of undecided and there are people who say they've made up their minds but are willing to rethink," said Blitzer.

Students help prep for debate

Prepping for the debate, Max Lesser is one of a handful of students picked to help CNN set up the press room.

"It's really fun, it's pretty cool to see everything going down, you know, at the school," Lesser said. "I'm here as junior, so it's my third year, and this is my first time seeing something as big as CNN coming onto campus, so it's pretty cool."

Lesser, a public relations major, said it's a rare opportunity and a chance to dabble in a career field he hopes to join.

"It's a great opportunity to get my foot in the door and actually see what the media is all about, getting a firsthand view of it," he said.

In addition to the exposure, UNF is thankful students are getting experience on a national scale, sorting information, running errands and assisting the crew.

"This is a real, living, hands-on experience for our students, and we want them to be able to be part of it," UNF spokeswoman Joanna Norris said.

Aside from a glimpse into the world of journalism, students are hoping to get a view of the candidates, but even if they don't, many say they're still excited the debate is here at home.

"I'm looking forward to it. That's all I can really say," student Shane McManus said.

Behind the scenes, student volunteers will be keeping busy, eager to watch their work pay off during the two-hour debate.

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