OXFORD, Miss. — Whew.
After two days of fretting that Republican Sen. John McCain might sink the first presidential debate, Mississippians rejoiced today as news broke that he would come after all.
Many said they figured the debate between McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama would go on as planned — how could McCain not come, after the time, money and effort the University of Mississippi and the people of Oxford had put into planning it?
"You can't be rude in the South," said Kate Field, 38, who works at Na-Ann's Interior Design on Lamar Street, just south of the welcome banner flying from the white brick front of the Lafayette County Court House.
Plus, she warned, "I'm an independent. I have struggled with this election, and for me it might have been — well, there's some people even this close who haven't made up their mind yet."
Officials at Ole Miss and the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates said all along that they were going ahead with debate preparations despite McCain's announcement Wednesday that he was suspending his campaign and skipping the debate to help Capitol Hill hash out a $700-billion spending package to shore up injured financial institutions on Wall Street.
Obama pledged to come regardless, saying presidential candidates ought to be able to multitask, and Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat hinted Friday morning on CNN that the school might just hold the event anyway, giving Obama an open stage to take questions from moderator Jim Lehrer and the audience.
Perhaps it was the specter of a 90-minute, televised Obama infomercial, or pressure from within his party and campaign, or his own calculations that missing the debate would do more harm than good, but McCain reversed course. Although thorny negotiations on the bailout continued among Senate leaders, the White House and recalcitrant House Republicans, McCain's campaign announced shortly before 10:30 a.m. Central Daylight Time (11:30 a.m. EDT) that he was flying to Oxford. His campaign staff promptly ordered ribs from a local caterer.
"He is optimistic that there has been significant progress toward a bipartisan agreement now that there is a framework for all parties to be represented in negotiations …," the campaign said in a statement. "The McCain campaign is resuming all activities and the senator will travel to the debate this afternoon."
Joe Norton, 26, a third-year law student at Ole Miss, said everyone in town breathed a collective sigh of relief. The university has spent about $5-million on planning and hosting the debate, red and blue balloons and banners festoon the streets, roads are blocked all over town, thousands of journalists and spectators have descended upon Oxford, and virtually every hotel room within 60 miles is booked.
"I've never seen it like this before," Norton said. "We were in the coffee shop earlier and saw (television journalist) Katie Couric. That doesn't happen every day. Met the governor (Haley Barbour) this morning."
But Mississippians in and outside of Oxford see the debate not only as a boon to the local economy, but also as a chance to disabuse America of the less-savory images regarding race that have dogged Mississippi.
It was 46 years ago this month that the National Guard shoehorned the first black student, James Meredith, into Ole Miss, and the residents said they take pride in hosting the first debate featuring the first black presidential nominee of a major party.
"We fight the stereotypes, that kind of stuff," said Buck Waldee, 40, owner of the Rib Cage, just off the town square. "Breaking News — Debate On" flashed on the TVs over the bar. "It's great to put us on the national stage, to show people what Mississippi is about and what we got here."
The Rib Cage will air the debate on all 12 TVs tonight, then cap things off with an Elvis impersonator, Waldee said. "If you're from Mississippi, you got to have ribs, beer and Elvis."
Darrin Foster, 38, a police officer from Aberdeen, Miss., south of Tupelo, came to Oxford with a friend just to check out the scene. An Obama supporter and African-American, he said race relations in Mississippi are far better than they once were, and he was struck by the magnitude of the moment.
"The first black presidential candidate, here in Mississippi, the first debate — that in and of itself is historic," Foster said. "Expectations are high, and we're praying that things will be" — he paused to find the word — "civil."