Southern Oregon University political science professor Bill Hughes won't be watching tonight's presidential debate at home. Instead, the keen-eyed researcher will be hanging out at a bar or another public space, observing people as they watch the two candidates make a case for votes.
Hughes says he won't be paying attention to what's said on air. "The candidates will be scripted and rehearsed," he discounts.
Instead, he'll sit back and take note of how the Ashland audience reacts during the live debate, which starts at 6 p.m. He will be especially tuned into the crowd after each candidate has delivered his concluding remarks and the sound is turned down on the on-air pundits offering their analyses.
What happens next, he says, will be meaningful.
He's hoping that people will cross the aisle and talk to others who don't share the same opinions.
And he's crossing his fingers that leaving their comfort zone will force people to have their assumptions tested and they will engage in deeper, more stimulating conversations.
And maybe, a Democrat might offer a Republican a beer. Or vice versa.
"Politics is not a private enterprise," says Hughes, "so it should be conducted in a public space."
Across the nation, schools, libraries and restaurants are hosting debate-watching parties. More viewers are expected to watch tonight's presidential debate, the first of three, than the combined millions who caught some of both political conventions.
Along with the seriousness, there will also be opportunities for voters to enjoy the event. Bars are extending their happy-hour drink discounts and some customers will be able to order red- or blue-colored drinks or play debate bingo.
In Ashland, as in other cities, the presidential debate starts with a coin toss: To watch or not? For those who plan to tune in, the next decision is where?
Staying home isn't always an option. Some Ashland residents don't own TVs for financial, philosophical or other personal reasons. Those without TV or cable signals can rely on Jefferson Public Radio's uninterrupted broadcast of the live debates on its far-reaching Classic & News stations (Ashland's KSOR 90.1 FM or KSRG 88.3 FM) or they can listen to a webstream at ijpr.org.
People who want to watch the debate, but not at home, can join friends or family members in their living rooms. Or they can take Hughes' advice and wander into a public place where they are more likely to be surrounded by people who don't completely agree with them.
To expose its expected audience to various points of view, the wide screens at SOU's new Digital Media Gallery on the ground floor of the Hannon Library will be tuned to different channels.
Side-by-side, 8-foot-long screens may show FOX, MSNBC and CNN, says Paul Adalian, the library dean. Overhead speakers will funnel that channel's sound down to people sitting in front of each screen.
Adalian says the public is invited to watch the debates for free. If more than 30 people show up, he has screens set up in the larger Meese Auditorium on the library's third floor.
Two local pubs also welcome debate watchers.
The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant on the Plaza will be showing the presidential debate on its 42-inch HDTV screen. To ease down the information overload, proprietor Susan Chester is reminding everyone that although East Coast residents have to wait until 9 p.m. for the first words to be spoken, it's still happy hour on the West Coast.
She says her crew will be offering local beers and oysters to suit every preference, from the half shell and au gratin to Rockefeller or barbecued.
"We are a neutral zone," she says, laughing. "The tradition of a pub is that it's a place for different generations and all walks of life to gather and discuss current events and be exposed to different opinions."
Peter Bolton was born and raised in Ireland, so he also knows the importance of pub talk. The owner of the Playwright Pub on A Street will tune his two 52-inch screens and sound system into the presidential debates tonight.
"It may scare a few diners who don't want to see the debates, but we want to provide a venue for people to have a friendly dialogue," says Bolton. "It doesn't matter which side you're on. It's just healthy for people to have a friendly discussion with an open mind."
He hopes that after hearing the candidates' ideas and the discussion afterward, a patron might be inspired to do more than cast a ballot.
At the very least, he says, his customers will make an event out of the evening.
His pub already has a tradition for fellowship between tables, except when it's barred during the Wednesday night trivia contest. He hints that tonight's quiz, which will be delayed until 8:30 p.m., may be heavily weighted toward questions about American presidents.
"If you're not planning to watch the debates at home," he says, "wouldn't it be nice to watch the debates where you can have a pint in your hand and a companion by your side?"
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org