Citadel seen as odd choice for Democratic debate

COLUMBIA -- Democrats chose The Citadel for their presidential debate next week in part to burnish their party's national security credentials.

In the minds of many, The Citadel, South Carolina's public military college, is a bastion of conservatism, the place Republican politicians long have gone to firm up their national defense bona fides.

On July 23, however, the school, which a little more than a decade ago fought to keep women out of its corps of cadets, will host for the first time a female candidate for president along with the seven other 2008 Democratic White House hopefuls.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and the other Democratic candidates will debate live from McAlister Field House on the school's Charleston campus in an event sponsored by CNN and Internet video giant YouTube.

"Because the Democrats, rightly or wrongly, are considered the more 'dovish' party, coming to The Citadel helps negate that in the minds of voters," said DuBose Kapeluck, professor of political science at the school.

The policy message the debate's locale sends is not coincidental, S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Khare Fowler said.

Once the decision was made to have the debate in Charleston, Fowler said, CNN began looking at sites. There were two or three other locations that would have been large enough, she said.

But, she added, "In my mind, The Citadel was the best, and I really advocated for The Citadel."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., agreed.

The Citadel was best, Fowler said, "partly because of the message: Democrats are concerned about things military and things educational. The Democrats do care about those things."

Having the debate at the military school will help send that message, she said. But the school also has excellent facilities and staff, Fowler said.

"The people at The Citadel have been wonderful," she said. "Needless to say, they're well organized."

Democrats welcome

Despite the strange dichotomy the event might conjure, the Democrats should expect a fine welcome, said S.C. Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, a 1995 Citadel graduate.

Cadets "will be respectful, and they'll follow orders, Democrat or Republican," Vick said.

However, the Democratic debate is likely to feature a somewhat different audience. Because school is out for the summer, The Citadel's Kapeluck said, the candidates and the national viewing audience shouldn't expect to see a lot of "short-haired, well-groomed cadets on camera."

The Citadel has a long history of being a place politicians visit. It also produces them.

Former governors who were Citadel graduates include Democrats Fritz Hollings and John West, who were classmates, graduating in 1942. Hollings went on to serve 38 years in the U.S. Senate and was -- briefly -- a 1984 presidential candidate.

The late James Stockdale, a Navy vice admiral and Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, was a former president of The Citadel.

Riley, the long-time mayor of Charleston, graduated from the school in 1964.

Besides Vick, there are 11 other members of the General Assembly -- nine Republicans and two other Democrats -- who graduated from The Citadel, as well as U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, the Republican who represents the state's 3rd District, and state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, recently suspended following his federal indictment on drug charges.

The school, a favorite stop on the campaign trail, is accustomed to being in the political spotlight.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, took questions from cadets on national television in 2002 when MSNBC's "Hardball" program was broadcast live from campus.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark also brought his bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination to the school in 2003.

GOP drawn to The Citadel

However, The Citadel has been a favorite spot for Republicans.

Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush visited during the 2000 primary campaign and as president gave a major defense policy speech there just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When Bush spoke from the Port of Charleston in 2004, six bus loads of Citadel cadets were brought in for the address.

Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, spoke at the school in 1977, as did 2000 and 2008 GOP presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2002. Former President Ronald Reagan visited in 1993, Vice President Dick Cheney in 1990 and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1986 and 1996. GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan also was there in 1995 and 1999.

Buchanan tried to speak on campus in 1996 but was denied entry. He stood outside its gates in the rain as cadets cheered his defense of preventing women from joining the corps.

Buchanan lost both campaigns: U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, who spoke at the school in 1994, won the GOP nomination, and women were admitted to the corps later in 1996.

In the 2008 campaign cycle alone, Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have made stops at the 176-acre campus, near the banks of the Ashley River.

S.C. Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a 1973 Citadel graduate, said the idea of Democrats taking over the campus for a night doesn't bother him.

"I've got no problem with Hillary and the rest of the Democratic entourage stomping around The Citadel campus," he said.

But, Harrison said, "if I had to guess, I would think that a significant majority of the corps of cadets are much more conservative than any of the candidates participating in the debate."

Harrison received a letter from the school asking if he would like a ticket to the debate. He passed.

"If I decide to watch any of it, I'll watch it on TV," he said. "That way I can turn it off real quick and go to bed."

Still, Harrison said, the debate is likely to be a boon for the school.

"This is a national event, and The Citadel will roll out the red carpet and be center stage."