Obama, McCain Set to Square Off at Hofstra Debate

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates get set to duke it out in America's first suburb

The last presidential debate is coming to America's first suburb, a locale where Democrats in recent years have overtaken a once-mighty Republican machine.

Nassau County was once such a bedrock Republican stronghold that nearly 16,000 Richard Nixon admirers gathered in 1972 at the newly opened Nassau County Coliseum for a GOP rally, and thousands more showed up at an airport in neighboring Suffolk County the same night. 

Political legend has it that Ronald Reagan once said that "when a Republican dies and goes to heaven it looks a lot like Nassau County." There used be jokes that when Democrats gathered for meetings on Long Island, the sessions were held in phone booths. 

But as the nation turns its attention to Wednesday's debate at Hofstra University, it appears that those days are over. 

Nassau County Democrats last week claimed their first edge in voter enrollment in more than a century, a far cry from even two presidential elections ago, when Republicans held a nearly 100,000 advantage. 

Democrats edged past the GOP last week by about 100 registered voters -- 328,604 to 328,477. 

The lead in voter registration has been preceded by an overwhelming blitz of Democratic victories. Except for one congressman, Peter King, and the leader of the state Senate, every major officeholder on Long Island is now a Democrat. And Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton have each enjoyed strong support from suburban voters in their re-election campaigns. 

"I think the change comes from the tone and focus of the national Republican Party, which has become more conservative," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "Voters in the suburbs tend to be more moderate." 

The college is just a few traffic lights from Levittown, a development built for returning soldiers in the late 1940s, earning the moniker of "America's first suburb." 

The suburban location for Wednesday's debate is especially fitting at a time when some believe the suburbs will be a key in next month's election. "Data from our polling shows the suburbs will decide this election, as they have for the past five presidential contests," said Levy. 

Joseph Mondello, the New York state Republican chairman who lives in Nassau County, brushed off the change in voter registration, saying "party labels really don't matter anymore." 

He said: "Politics is a cyclical business, so claiming victory based on anything other than election results is always a mistake." 

Alfonse D'Amato, a once little-known Long Island town supervisor who vaulted to the U.S. Senate on the strength of GOP suburban domination in 1980, was equally philosophical. He told Newsday that Republicans "will have to work that much harder to present its credentials as the party of the hardworking forgotten middle class, the one whose work ethic and personal values built suburbia." 

This isn't the first time that Hofstra has been the focus of a presidential campaign. 

Levy recalls that when Bob Dole was running for president in 1996, thousands of supporters turned up at a fundraising dinner -- at Hofstra. "He went to a reception before the dinner where 200 people were dressed in tuxedos," Levy said. "He thought that was the fundraiser. He was shocked when he walked into the next room and saw 5,000 people."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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