USF to host GOP presidential debate

Just a little more than a week before the Florida primary, USF will host a GOP presidential candidate debate on campus.

NBC News and the St. Petersburg Times announced Monday morning that they would co-host the debate Jan. 23 at USF.

NBC anchor Brian Williams will moderate the debate, along with panelists such as St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam Smith.

Smith said the debate will see a “less-crowded stage,” as it will be held after the primaries for Iowa and New Hampshire – often considered the states that determine the outcome of the elections.

The debate will be the second this political season held in the Tampa Bay area, which Smith said is of vital importance to the candidates.

“(Tampa Bay) is ground zero for Florida, not just in the primaries, but in the presidential election,” he said. “The rule is if you don’t win Tampa Bay, you’re not going to win Florida. Tampa Bay is crucial.”

The Florida primary, initially required to be after March 6, was moved to Jan. 31 after state GOP leaders surrendered half their Republican National Convention delegates so the state could be among the first five to hold a primary, according to the Washington Post.

The debate was originally scheduled for Jan. 30 at the St. Pete Times Forum, but the candidates did not want to hold the debate the day before the primary.

They hoped to host it a week in advance, though the original venue was not available for the new date.

USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said USF, which hosted gubernatorial and senate debates last fall, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and televised by CNN, had a working relationship with the newspaper and was approached to see if it had an available, more intimate venue.

“It’s an amazing scenario for everyone,” she said. “It puts us in the national spotlight.”

Smith said hosting the presidential debate at a university allows the candidates to address an important demographic – future job-seekers.

“I think all of these debates have mattered quite a bit so far,” he said. “I think we’ll gather the University and hopefully address some issues important to young people, especially people who are going to be looking for jobs soon in a tough economy.”

Wade-Martinez said USF would partner with Student Government (SG) in sponsoring the event, though contracts have not yet been finalized with NBC.

Student body president Matt Diaz said the opportunity for USF to host the debate would benefit students by allowing them to engage in the political process.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our young institution to host something with such a national impact,” he said. “The national exposure can really showcase our students.”

Diaz said SG, which brought Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to campus earlier this month, hopes to bring more political figures to campus to foster more political involvement and interaction between students and legislators.

“It comes down to having a say in what happens in society,” he said. “Apathy is something that has plagued USF students for student body elections (and) our entire nation (during) presidential elections and smaller elections. If people (were) involved and educated on the issues, we could elect the appropriate candidates to lead our nation, city or state in the right direction.”