BY MIKE TONOS
OXFORD – Shepard Smith of Fox News is heading to Oxford, confident that the presidential debate will take place as planned.
“The debate is going to happen,” Smith said during a phone interview at midday Thursday.
Republican John McCain on Wednesday suspended his campaign and suggested that the debate be canceled so he could work on the financial bailout plan in Washington. Democrat Barack Obama said the debate should take place as scheduled Friday night.
Smith, a Holly Springs native who attended Ole Miss, predicted that an agreement on the financial bailout plan would be reached no later than before the markets open Friday, thus allowing both candidates to get to Oxford in time for the debate.
He described McCain's announcement as a campaign move. Because he was slipping in the polls, Smith said, “he called for a timeout.”
Smith also noted that because foreign policy is McCain's strength, the candidate might be worried that the economy would overshadow whatever he says Friday, meaning “he's done his strongest suit with no coattails.”
Smith plans to be in Oxford for the big event, even if rains predicted along the East Coast today shut down airports. “Come hell or high water,” he said, “if there's a debate, I'll be in Oxford.”
Smith, who has anchored “The Fox Report” on Fox News for the past nine years, got his start in journalism at Ole Miss. He recently bought a house in Oxford and tries to fly in for home football games. He said he hopes to bring Oxford and Ole Miss to his audience in a way unlike any other journalist there.
“Nobody believes in Oxford more than I do. That's sort of my message,” he said.
Besides anchoring his 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows, he'll also host his 4 p.m. radio show and work on The Strategy Room, which is based on the Web. And he's got to cover the debate, too.
“I've got to work. I won't be having any fun on Friday. I mean, work is fun, but I won't be having any Oxford fun,” he said.
Smith has been too busy covering the country's financial crisis to come to Oxford early to film features about the town and university, as he'd planned to do.
“I haven't been able to do that sort of preparation, but we're reading and studying and talking to these candidates every day,” Smith said.
In between discussing the candidates, he plans to talk Oxford and Ole Miss and their histories, because the debate will be a showcase for the community and university, he said.
“People have mostly let go of the past. They've (put) our past to museums, where they belong. We don't have Colonel Reb anymore because it’s divisive. We don't wave (the Confederate) flag anymore because it's divisive. We’re a modern, culturally diverse community, and we’re not stuck in our old ways,” Smith said.
Oxford and the university's welcoming, positive spirit should greet visitors warmly, Smith said.
“We have a saying in Oxford: 'We may not win every football game, but we’ve never lost a party,'” Smith said. “We know how to be hospitable. That’s just a part of our culture.”