By Elizabeth Trollinger
With the Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College less than three months away, many who remember the debate at Centre in 2000 are thinking back on the experience. Mary Quinn Kerbaugh Ramer, a 1998 graduate, recalls the 2000 debate as one of the busiest and most exciting experiences of her career.
Ramer — who was working for Lexington marketing and research firm Preston-Osborne at the time — returned to Centre as an adjunct member of the communications team for the 2000 debate. Now vice president for tourism and marketing at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ramer will help out at Centre once again for the debate this fall.
As part of her many duties for the communications team, Ramer worked on reaching out to area students to emphasize the gravity of the political process.
“We made a commitment to talking about the importance of vice presidents,” Ramer said. “We wanted to elevate the office of the vice president and use it as an opportunity to connect to students. That was the springboard for conversations with high-schoolers in particular about the political system in America.”
In the midst of working to publicize Centre, Danville and all things debate-related, everything suddenly changed. The college received devastating news in early September: then-presidential nominee George Bush announced plans to pursue an alternative debate schedule, and as such, his team would not be participating in the debate at Centre.
“We had a meeting after the announcement, and it was like a funeral — with pizza. From then until the day of the debate, it was a whole different ballgame,” Ramer recalled. “We went into major save the debate mode, and it was crisis communications at its absolute finest. We were constantly asking ourselves, how do we apply enough pressure to say you can’t turn your back on the heartland of America. The save the debate storyline ended up really leveraging tremendous opportunities for us in the realm of editorial coverage.”
Despite the frenzy surrounding those weeks leading up to the day of the debate, Ramer said that the possibility of losing the debate was what made the nation begin to pay Centre particular notice.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever worked that hard, around the clock. But that’s really when the major news outlets — NPR, Reuters, AP — started calling,” she said. “Quite honestly, it propelled us front and center to the discussion in a positive way.”
Anticipation continued to build at Centre, even though there was still no guarantee that the debate would actually happen.
“So much momentum built over the summer, and there was a palpable excitement on campus. It was really fun, although we were working hard,” Ramer said. “September and first week of October were absolutely non-stop. The save the debate campaign changed what we thought we’d be working on, but at the end of the day, we tried to go about business as usual.”
Ramer remembered working particularly hard on a story for NBC Nightly News veteran reporter Ann Thompson, who wanted to profile a couple in Danville in which the wife was voting for Gore and the husband was voting for Bush.
“The news at the time was that Gore resonated more with women than men. Did we have anybody in town that would fit that bill? I spent the next 24 hours on the phone trying to find the perfect couple,” Ramer said. “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, because it’d be a huge coup to be on NBC Nightly News. I stumbled upon Tim and Joanne Rice, who couldn’t be more perfect. NBC ran the story on the day of the debate. It worked out perfectly — Danville and Centre had their moment to shine.
“There were a lot of situations like that where we had the opportunity to tell stories that the College doesn’t get to tell on a normal day, and that’s what I loved most,” Ramer continued.
While the nation was watching the vice presidential debate unfold, Ramer and many others were preparing for what would come afterward.
“I remember vividly coming in after the debate had finished and seeing the media hall erupt into action,” she said.
Once the frenzy of the actual event had subsided, Ramer and the rest of the debate team were able to savor the fact that their hard work had paid off.
“The following day, we got all these newspapers to see what everyone had written, and a gentleman from the Washington Post had written a fabulous article. At the crux of the article, he said, ‘The real story was not what the candidates said on stage but this college and town stepping up to create an experience that reminds us what this process was all about.’ He called it a happy pageantry of Alexis de Toqueville meets Norman Rockwell, and it was then that I knew we had pulled it off,” Ramer said. “It was a tremendous feeling, realizing we had been successful. There was a lot of very positive feedback almost instantly.”
Ramer looked back on the 2000 debate as a vital part of solidifying her interest in communications.
“It was such a thrilling experience from start to finish. The debate stands out as one of my career highlights,” Ramer said. “It really taught me a lot about public relations. I got some great life lessons, which I’m thankful for.
“It also told me that I loved being a part of signature events—especially here at home,” she continues. “I’m totally committed to putting this part of our state out there—to putting our best foot forward and having people appreciate the talent, natural beauty, people and natural resources we have here. That’s the most rewarding part about all of it, and that’s why I do this for a living.”
Centre was selected host of 2012 Vice Presidential Debate because of several factors, according to Commission on Presidential Debates Executive Director Janet Brown.
“First, Centre did an outstanding job of hosting the 2000 Vice Presidential debate. Second, Centre’s principal players from that debate are still at the college, and we value that experience. Finally, Centre’s facilities, as good as they were in 2000, are vastly improved now,” she said.
The debate is set for Oct. 11.
Tickets will not be available through Centre College personnel, and tickets are not available through any means at this point. The limited number of tickets eventually allocated to the college will be mainly earmarked for current students in the days or weeks before the debate in the fall of 2012.