HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The third and final presidential debate for 2008 looked more like a victory lap for Democratic hopeful Barak Obama than a critical campaign confrontation with Republican John McCain.
The atmosphere on the Long Island campus of Hofstra University resembled that of a late-summer carnival.
Students were more amused by the massive media crush, rather than overriding political issues. MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews drew large throngs of students seeking autographs and had to be protected from the crowds by university police.
Hofstra, an educational institution about 30 miles outside Manhattan, is said to have spent more than $3 million to host the final presidential debate.
"We are a politically active university; this [the debate] gives us an opportunity to shine," exclaimed one student.
Hofstra, the largest private educational institution on Long Island, hosts more than 12,000 full-time students. Before the debate Wednesday, the university was best known as the training camp for the New York Jets who had since bolted for new digs in New Jersey.
Before the debate, many Hofstra residents spent the afternoon patronizing some of the numerous kiosks set up by various corporations, media outlets and political action committees.
One of the oddest of the interlopers was the presence of the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). It strangely spoke of being the "source" for news on the U.S. presidential elections. Even stranger, was the fact that the "BBC Campaign Bus" had Montana license plates.
The crowds surrounding the debate were for the most concentrated on the Hofstra campus, leaving downtown Hempstead looking like a ghost town, except for groups of city, county, state police, and U.S. Secret Service.
A small group of U.S. military vets and left-leaning civil rights advocates stood vigil just outside Hofstra's main gate on Hempstead Turnpike since early Wednesday morning. About 90 minutes before the debate, a group of Iraq war vets attempted to enter the university campus, which had been closed to the public. Word was the vets wanted to deliver a protest to members of the Obama campaign.
University and Nassau County police intercepted the vets and a brief melee ensued. Riot and mounted police charged the vets and then moved into the crowd that had gathered on a nearby street. They were backed by special New York State Police in an armored personnel carrier.
More than 300 people were sent fleeing the area as police with tear gas rifles and several on horseback charged the protesters.
One individual was hospitalized, though it was not clear how serious the injuries were. The melee drew almost as many curious students as the debate which was about to begin.
Meanwhile, shortly before the debate started, CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer asked the students to pause a moment to remember the late NBC News anchor Tim Russert.
Then, Schieffer welcomed the two presidential hopefuls.
Obama was greeted by roars from the Hofstra students; silence and some groans accompanied the appearance of John McCain.
Many of the students gathered in the University's main cafeteria to watch the debate on a giant video screen. About 500 mostly Obama supporters listened attentively throughout the encounter. When McCain attacked the Obama campaign for its emphasis on negative ads, the Hofstra students went silent.
Obama's explanation seemed to bore the students.
By the time the debate was only 30 minutes old, students were already seen socializing and in some instances snoozing, only to be jostled awake by roaming TV crews. The give and take between the two candidates did not seem to change any minds on the Hofstra campus.
Perhaps the day was best summed up by two students strolling home on Hempstead Turnpike shortly before the Obama-McCain confrontation.
"These debates, they just bore me," one girl said.
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