By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Thursday night’s debate between Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Joe Biden may be a partisan party versus party fight.
But across the way from the debate hall, it’s just one big party.
Center College students, Danville residents, out-of-towners — even students from mainland China — were all smiles and in a party mood.
“This is – uh – great! Lot of fun, the way we ought to do this,” said Disi Lu, 18, a Centre freshman from China.
She and three other students from China – they met at Centre not in China – were merrily having their photographs taken with Kentucky State Troopers, festival goers dressed as Abe Lincoln and George Washington, even reporters and photographers.
Lu said she likes the way the United States chooses its leaders. Asked to contrast that with her homeland, she said, “Both are good,” raising her voice to overcome the music booming from the concert stage by “Earthman Lanny Smith.”
The event was sponsored by AARP, which offered patrons a chance to be photographed with life-sized cut-outs of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama – or between both of them.
Mary Maggard, an AARP volunteer from Lexington, said by noon about one-third of those posing had chosen Obama, one-third Romney “and about one-third are in-between.”
That might be a surprise in a conservative state like Kentucky, which increasingly votes Republican in national elections, a state already conceded by the Obama campaign. But at the festival, Obama supporters, mostly young students, weren’t timid.
“I’m the biggest socialist you’ll ever meet,” Miranda Willis, 19, of Campbellsville said with a smile after she and two friends posed with Obama’s cut-out. “I believe in all of Obama’s programs and policies.”
Willis is especially displeased with a comment made by Romney in an interview that students who can’t afford college should “borrow the money from their parents.”
“That just shows how incredibly out of touch he is with the lives of most people,” said Willis, a government and sociology major at Centre.
“Tuition at Centre is $42,000 a year, and my parents are middle class people who simply don’t have that kind of money. I’ll be $80,000 in debt when I graduate, and I just don’t think that’s fair.”
Nearby Brittany Neal, 19, a Centre sophomore from Somerset, agreed and waved an Obama sign, perhaps a bit surprising for someone from Pulaski County, right in the middle of Kentucky’s conservative Republican region.
“Mine is the one family in Somerset that likes Obama,” Neal said smiling. “My family are all Democrats, and we’re kind of proud of it.”
If there were more Obama supporters visible at the festival, the reverse was true at a television set of MSNBC where the Andrea Mitchell show was broadcasting.
A few brave Obama supporters were trying to compete with more numerous Romney supporters who held up Romney/Ryan signs for the television cameras. The Obama supporters were outnumbered 3-to-1 or 4-to-1.
One Obama fan, a Centre professor, Anne Lubbers, was so dismayed by the prevalence of Romney supporters with matching signs, she hastily constructed her own on cardboard which read: “Obama Biden care about ALL of us!”
A few feet away, Alden Homirch, a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity from Stone Mountain, Ga., sat on a fraternity brother’s shoulders and held high aloft the portrait of Centre grad and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson, known around campus as “Dead Fred.” The Phi Delts take the portrait to all campus events and he was to have prime balcony seat at the actual debate Thursday evening.
Asked who “Dead Fred” supports in the current election, Homirch said, “He’s bi-partisan, I think.”
Back at the festival it was a more festive atmosphere at Melton’s Great American Deli vendor’s tent. Owner Gina Melton, a Barren County native who lives in Danville, said she and her family prepared 2,600 hot dogs and buns for the event; cotton candy for 1,000 people, nachos with cheese and all sorts of hot and cold drinks.
Next door, Papa John’s was selling Paul Ryan Pepperoni and Joe Biden Beef pizzas. AARP volunteers manned booths with spinning wheels and offering prizes like small megaphones, T-shirts and caps.
Next door was a tent where patrons were snapping up official Centre debate t-shirts, sweatshirts, “Thrill in the ‘Ville” debate posters and caps.
Concert-goers sat on the rolling lawn in chairs, on blankets and just walked around. Giant screens beside the musical stage were to broadcast the actual debate where thousands on hand were expected to watch. The event was to conclude with a concert by the Marshall Tucker Band.
It may be deadly serious for the two presidential campaigns, but it was a part for all those on hand at the festival.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.