By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
My chief regret traveling into and out of as many places as we do is that we never get to stop and enjoy where we are, or otherwise take it in. It's especially true at debates, where a lot of people are here to push a political angle or candidate -- and we often become prisoners in our hotel rooms rather than step out into the scrum. At colleges like this one, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, hosting a debate means mobilizing an army of volunteers -- mostly students -- who are overjoyed to have the event here and have been working on it for weeks. We arrive a few hours before the event, get shunted into a makeshift office (the work of Nightly News goes on, regardless of the clock ticking down to tonight's 9pm start time) and leave immediately after the conclusion. It never feels like we give them the attention they deserve. On rare occasions, we're on the ground long enough to get a sense of place. One of the great joys of my life in this business was a side trip I took to Corregidor while covering the Clinton White House during a summit in Manila. I'm so glad, having read so much history, that I forced myself to go and see a place I'd otherwise never get to. I was able to stand in the exact spot where Douglas MacArthur once stood, and walk through the fortified tunnels deep inside the island. Sadly, there will be no such exploration here, as we leave just hours after the debate, and the press of the news business will keep us from enjoying this beautiful spot in Boca Raton.
Given my life-long study of President Johnson, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out his personal history where this University is concerned: 44 years ago, President Johnson came here to dedicate the new campus and receive the first-ever honorary degree from this institution. There's a picture of the event in the borrowed office I'm using while I prepare for the broadcast this afternoon.
Johnson had been a teacher back home in Texas before he got into politics, and here at FAU he called for "a new revolution" in American education. It was October 25, 1964 -- just nine days before the general election, and Johnson won in a landslide that year. He carried every state but Arizona (Republican opponent Barry Goldwater's home state), and five states of the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. LBJ's 1964 sweep included Florida, but it was one of only three times in the 14 elections since 1952 that a Democrat has carried the state (the others being Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1996). And Johnson's margin in Florida (51-49%) was a lot narrower that it was nationwide (61-38%).
Florida's history of going Republican can make a crucial difference in presidential elections (see Bush v. Gore, 2000). Florida has a whopping 27 electoral votes -- more than any state except California, New York and Texas -- and that's ten percent of the total needed to win. Come November, that will provide a big advantage to whomever wins the Sunshine State, something sure to be on the minds of the GOP candidates as they take the stage here tonight.
One postscript: Lyndon Johnson's 1964 election blowout was preceded by a very real blowout while he was here in Florida. The president had flown into Fort Lauderdale, and was traveling by motorcade to Boca Raton for the FAU dedication. As his heavy, bulletproof Lincoln bubble-top limousine arrived on campus, the left rear tire blew out (with a "muffled report," according to one press account). As the limo came to a stop, the president was hustled into a Secret Service follow-up car, and continued without incident. There was no explanation of why that supposedly puncture-proof presidential tire went flat.
Tonight on the broadcast, we'll set the political stakes going into this evening's debate. We'll also have complete coverage of today's moving pieces in Washington on the economy, and an update on the Gaza situation. We hope you can join us for Nightly News from here in Boca Raton, and for tonight's debate on MSNBC at 9 eastern time and again at 9pm on the West Coast.