When University of Miami president Donna Shalala boasted at a recent breakfast about hosting Florida's first presidential debate, she reassured the parents of freshman students that ``there is going to be no safer place than the UM campus on Sept. 30.''
Indeed, thousands of law enforcement officers, led by the Secret Service, will be protecting the presidential candidates at UM's Convocation Center on Thursday. Twenty-four hours before the 9 p.m. debate, agents will be doing ''sweeps'' for potential bombs or other explosives inside the auditorium and the nearby Wellness Center gym.
The security deployment also includes everything from mounted police to antisniper rooftop sharpshooters to SWAT teams on standby.
The nation's first presidential event at UM is a security tour de force, similar to safety precautions for Miami's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit last year. '
'I would dare say, given the post 9/11 world, that security is on a par with those events,'' said Bill Sims, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Miami field office. ``In post 9/11, the threat of terrorism looms much greater.''
YEAR OF PLANNING
The Secret Service started planning security in November when UM, Washington University in St. Louis and Arizona State University in Tempe were chosen as sites for the three debates.
While Secret Service agents are in charge of security for Thursday, Coral Gables, Miami-Dade and other police departments will help with UM campus safety, traffic control and public transportation issues. The school's class schedule will remain the same, though access to certain campus areas will be limited and security zones off limits.
Sims said local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are part of the team.
Among them: the Department of Homeland Security; the FBI; the Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; the Florida Highway Patrol; and the police departments from Coral Gables, UM, Miami, Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and the Miccosukee Indian tribe.
Sims and other law enforcement officials wouldn't give details on the total security deployment or operations.
But officials said they're used to providing security for South Florida presidential visits. Former President Clinton, President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry have made frequent stops to the region.
''We're hoping for business as usual,'' said Sgt. Michael Frevola of Coral Gables police, which is coordinating local law enforcement efforts.
Starting Monday, campus security was already tight: Barricades and fences had been erected. Police cars prowled back roads.
UM ID CARDS
Some 9,000 UM students, 2,300 faculty members and other employees were warned to wear Cane Card IDs.
Officials handed out more than 20,000 lanyards to ensure IDs are visible on everyone.
''If you don't have one of these Cane Cards hanging from your neck, police will ask you to get it,'' UM spokeswoman Sarah Artecona said. ``You have to have a connection to the university to be on the campus.''
Portions of the campus near the Convocation Center are being closed off.
The auditorium, used for basketball games, concerts and other events, has 7,000 seats. But only a fraction of those will be used for the debate.
Artecona said on debate night, there will be airportlike electronic surveillance of those lucky enough to have a ticket for the debate. No cellphones will be allowed and personal items will be limited.
Officials said their goal is to give the public a sense of security, not a police state.
Secret Service agents will be stationed in and around the Convocation Center, while local and state police provide support on and near the campus.
''We are in no way trying to make this a police state,'' Miami-Dade police spokesman Lupo Jimenez said.
''But there is certainly going to be secured areas where even police officers cannot go into,'' he added. ``At the same time, we have to keep in mind that this campus is home for most of these kids. That's why we want to keep as low a profile as possible.''
Jimenez said there will be a First Amendment zone for political demonstrators off U.S. 1.
''They're entitled to do it as long as they don't disrupt traffic,'' Jimenez said.