OXFORD, Miss. -- Banners proclaiming "Welcome to Oxford" and "Ole Miss -- The debate starts here" wave from lampposts around town.
A freshly painted mural of John McCain and Barack Obama having coffee together decorates the front window of the funky Bottletree Bakery.
Under a slowly swirling fan in the Blind Pig Pub & Deli on the 19th-century courthouse square, B&B owner Russell French mulls requests from media heavyweights wanting to reserve rooms for tonight's scheduled presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.
The first showdown between the nominees on the 160-year-old Ole Miss campus marks a first for Mississippi, which never has hosted a presidential debate. When the TV spotlight shines tonight on presidential sound bites and fury in Oxford, the city is ready for its close-up.
Once home to William Faulkner and John Grisham, among other notables, it has written chapters in literary history and is an inviting, ready-for-prime-time travel destination in its own right.
"This really is a spectacular place: It's hip and sophisticated, with a small-town feel," says French, 44, a local businessman with the gift of gab who also owns the 208 restaurant and who has lived in a dozen cities. "It's Mayberry (of The Andy Griffith Show fame). We could lay $100 bills on the sidewalk right now, and we wouldn't get mugged."
His view is seconded by Houstonians Debbie and Rod Acker, enjoying beers down the bar while other patrons tuck into the Pig's tasty club sandwiches on ciabatta bread served in plastic baskets. They rented for the year, sight unseen, a $1,250-a-month apartment to visit their daughter, an Ole Miss freshman, and join in the university's famed football festivities, including elaborate tailgate parties boasting tents with chandeliers and wall-to-wall revelers.
The city of 19,000 also is known for fine food, art and a lively music scene. But it has limited lodgings, which can be hard to book because of demand, explains Rod, sporting an Ole Miss pullover in the school's blue and red colors. They've fallen in love with Oxford, considered an anomaly in often hardscrabble rural Mississippi. "To us, it's a big bubble," Rod says. "You feel protected from the rest of the world. You have Deep South charm without the hillbilly."
"It's so laid-back, and everyone's nice," Debbie, a well-groomed blonde, chimes in. "Plus there's the history."
A 1½-hour drive south of Memphis, the city (whose population swells to nearly 33,000 when Ole Miss is in session) is a manicured oasis of culture and prosperity in Mississippi. Antebellum mansions, BMWs, sorority beauties toting $1,000 handbags and hip, locally owned boutiques, bookstores, bars and restaurants are as common as the kudzu vines and farmland that dot the surrounding countryside. You won't find a Starbucks or McDonald's in the center of town.
Oxford, named after the elite British university, is famed for the university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture and as the adopted home of late Nobel Prize-winning Faulkner, whose fictional Yoknapatawpha County is based on Oxford's Lafayette County (say "La-FAY-ette," as locals do). Ole Miss alums include New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and author Grisham, of legal-thriller fame.