Last debate set for America’s first suburb

HEMPSTEAD, New York (AP) _ New York’s Nassau County once was such a bedrock Republican stronghold that nearly 16,000 admirers of President Richard M. Nixon gathered in 1972 at the newly opened Nassau County Coliseum for a Republican rally.

Thousands more showed up at an airport in neighboring Suffolk County the same night.

The party machine was so powerful that President Ronald Reagan once said “when a Republican dies and goes to heaven, it looks a lot like Nassau County.”

A popular joke said that when Democrats gathered for meetings on Long Island, there were so few of them they met in telephone booths.

But those days are over in Long Island, east of New York City.

Last week, Nassau County Democrats 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-voter advantage.

Democrats edged past the Republicans by more than 100 registered voters – 328,604 to 328,477.

The lead in voter registration has been preceded by an overwhelming blitz of Democratic victories, beginning with the election of County Executive Tom Suozzi. Except for U.S. Rep. Peter King and state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, every major officeholder on Long Island is now a Democrat.

And Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton have 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, site of Wednesday’s third and final presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. “Voters in the suburbs tend to be more moderate.”

The suburban setting is fitting, Levy said.

“Data from our polling shows the suburbs will decide this election, as they have for the past five presidential contests,” he said.

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

“Politics is a cyclical business, so claiming victory based on anything other than election results is always a mistake,” he said.

Wednesday won’t be Hofstra’s first time at the center of a presidential campaign.

Levy recalled that when Republican Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, thousands of supporters turned up at a fundraising dinner at the university.

“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.”