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Debates follow in tradition that includes visits by likes of JFK, Taft

Barack Obama is shown outside the Corn Palace in 2008. (Republic File Photo)

The politicians participating in today's debates at the Corn Palace will become part of an extensive history of major political appearances at the Mitchell institution.

Former South Dakota congressman and senator George McGovern, who plans to attend the debates, said it's no wonder politicians like the Corn Palace.

"I think it's an ideal place," said McGovern, of Mitchell. "It's about the right size for a large crowd, but not so big that there's a lot of empty seats, which look bad."

Today's debates include a backer vs. an opponent of an anti-smoking statewide ballot issue at 11 a.m.; the two major-party candidates for South Dakota secretary of state at 11:30 a.m.; and the two major-party candidates for U.S. House -- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Kristi Noem -- at noon. Admission is free, and for those who can't make it, a live webcast is available at

Lyle Swenson, longtime Davison County sheriff and president of the Mitchell Area Historical Society, said he recalls several of the Corn Palace political visits of the past. The day Swenson announced his candidacy for sheriff in 1964, Sen. Ted Kennedy made an appearance at the Palace.

"He made a very good speech," said McGovern, who attended the event. He said Ted Kennedy was campaigning for Democrats across the country that year.

Ted Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months before that day. But JFK also had come to the Corn Palace when he was running for president.

JFK was the Democratic candidate for president when he made a speech in the Corn Palace during the Corn Palace Festival in 1960. McGovern, who was running for the Senate, introduced Kennedy on Sept. 22 that year.

McGovern, who was completing his second term in the House, was running against Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., that year (Mundt won), and Kennedy praised McGovern in the speech. JFK also discussed agricultural issues.

"I don't regard the problem of agricultural surplus as a problem," Kennedy said. "I regard it as an opportunity to use it imaginatively, not only for our own people, but for people all around the world."

He also touched on the idea of a Food for Peace program and later appointed McGovern to lead that effort in 1961.

Eight years after JFK's appearance, his younger brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy, spoke at the Corn Palace. "Bobby" appeared at the Palace on May 10, 1968.

Less than a month later, on June 4, 1968, RFK won the South Dakota and California Democratic primaries. But he was shot in The Ambassador, a Los Angeles hotel, minutes after finishing his victory speech. He died the next day.

Many other famous politicians have appeared at the Corn Palace through the years.

President William McKinley may have been the first president to pass through the city. In 1899, McKinley made a train tour through South Dakota and appeared in Sioux Falls and 12 other cities and towns.

The passage of time has obscured exactly where McKinley went during the visit.

In 1900, McKinley selected New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate. "Teddy" Roosevelt made an appearance in Mitchell on Sept. 12, 1900, to promote the GOP ticket. He was saluted for his political skills and his service to the United States during the Spanish-American War.

During the 1908 presidential campaign, Republican candidate William Howard Taft and Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan spoke at the Corn Palace during the annual festival.

Bryan came to Mitchell on Sept. 28, 1908, and made a typically fiery speech.

Taft came to town a day later. His appearance received much more glowing coverage in the local newspaper, then named the Mitchell Daily Republican.

In 1920, Democratic presidential candidate James Cox appeared at the Corn Palace. Cox lost to Republican Warren G. Harding that year.

In 1940, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie made a campaign stop in Mitchell. Willkie made a speech at the train depot, paraded through town in an open car and made a speech at the Corn Palace.

McGovern, then 18, was in the crowd for that speech.

"I was a Republican in those days," he said. "I thought he made a very good speech."

McGovern, a part-time Mitchell resident for most of the last 60 years, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972.

When his museum and library was dedicated in October 2006 at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, former President Bill Clinton attended the event and made a speech.

Clinton returned to Mitchell in 2008 to campaign for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush, then vice president and Republican Party nominee for president, visited Mitchell.

Swenson said he remembers setting up for Bush's visit as they turned the Mitchell police station into Bush's moving office.

"The chief (of police) was kicked out of his office so (Bush) would have an office," Swenson said. "Then we had cars set up on the north side of the Corn Palace and then some on the south side of the building for a getaway."

In 2008, the Democratic Party's eventual presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, held a rally in front of the Corn Palace on June 1. The rally, held on a sweltering Sunday, was covered live on several TV networks.

Obama said he was running to defeat the power of special interests and vowed "they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president of the United States."

The politicians who will appear today will debate an array of state and national issues. Daily Republic Publisher Korrie Wenzel will moderate the debates, and the participants will field prewritten questions from a panel consisting of Daily Republic Editor Seth Tupper, a registered independent; state Rep. Noel Hamiel, R-Mitchell; and Mitchell City Councilman Mel Olson, a Democrat and former state legislator.