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Mississippi, Still Bearing Its Southern Cross

The University of Mississippi had hoped hosting the first presidential debate would cast a new light on the school. Now, the campus waits for news on whether the debate will be held Friday after all.

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

OXFORD, Miss.

Mississippi has been chasing away ghosts for years, trying to rid itself of a past that keeps haunting the present. But the ghosts just won't leave Mississippi alone.

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University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat thought he could perform a little exorcism of his own by bringing the first presidential debate of the general election campaign to his lush campus here, an oasis of culture and refinement in a state often framed by its problems. And its history: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the longevity of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate battle cross, which two-thirds of the state's voters chose to keep as part of the state flag.

First and foremost, Khayat said, hosting a presidential debate would be a signature experience for Ole Miss's 17,000 students. But there was something else the debate and its international exposure could provide, Khayat thought, and that was "to lift our own self-perception. You know how Mississippi is kicked around. Every time some list comes out that nobody wants to be on, we're up at the top."

Poverty, teen pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality, illiteracy: Mississippi is among the nation's leaders. "After a while, we become defensive," said Khayat, an alum who played football for Ole Miss and later for the Washington Redskins. "I would call it a Mississippi inferiority complex."

And so it was, just as Oxford was polishing the state's image, that along came Sen. John McCain to deliver another blow to the Mississippi psyche. On Wednesday he suspended his campaign and called for the postponement of today's scheduled debate in order to address the urgency of the nation's financial crisis. Back in Washington yesterday, McCain joined his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, and other congressional leaders at a meeting President Bush convened to discuss a compromise government bailout, which rapidly unraveled. Obama declared he would be in Oxford, while McCain left unclear whether he'd show up.

Meanwhile, at Ole Miss, plans moved forward to host the face-off. While Mississippi remains divided about many things politically, there seemed to be no partisan divisions about the debate. Haley Barbour, the state's governor and a powerful Republican well practiced in the ways of Washington, said yesterday that he expected the debate to take place as planned. Clarke Reed, the veteran state Republican strategist, was even more forceful. "I frankly think McCain is making a mistake," Reed said. "I don't think it looks good."

Hosting a debate is a huge undertaking for any institution, but Ole Miss seems to have come to it with special zeal. "I've never seen more excitement about a debate," said Reed, who has seen many of them. "The campus looks like it's set up for a Soviet parade."

The Grove, Ole Miss's famous football tailgating grounds, has been set up as a kind of all-day debate festival, with food and music under the tall oaks. Those without tickets to get inside the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center -- and that's most everybody -- can watch the debate in the Grove and get their party on.

"Welcome to Oxford" banners hang on light fixtures and poles along University Avenue. Ole Miss seems to have amassed an army of promoters -- 400 staff, faculty and student volunteers -- and most are wearing debate name badges or engraved debate polo shirts provided by Nike. The hospitality brigade is not limited to campus. Some 100 alumni greeters have been sent to the state's airports to welcome those who have flown in for the occasion, which was expected to include some 3,000 members of the media.

Ole Miss even has the corners of the downtown square covered. The other evening, three retirees from the Jackson area -- Lois Pauls, Charlene Bullock and Fay Ray -- sat in their folding chairs, all wearing white blouses, and fielded questions from passersby. Restaurants? Shops? Transportation? They were there to help.


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