October 30, 2008 -- A McCain-Palin campaign official snubbed the president of Penn State University who inquired about attending a campus speech Tuesday by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, university officials told ABCNews.com.
"He's a big Democrat. Why would he want to meet Palin?" campaign aide Russell Bermel allegedly asked a school employee who was hoping to make arrangements for president Graham B. Spanier to meet Palin, according to Spanier's office.
Spokespeople for the McCain-Palin campaign said Wednesday they could not locate Bermel and would not make him available for comment. On Thursday, a spokesman contacted ABC News and said they had reached Bermel, who flatly denied the account. The campaign did not make Bermel available for an interview.
The McCain-Palin campaign has been working overtime to become competitive in Pennsylvania, where the Obama-Biden campaign has enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls.
Some might say that makes it an odd time to snub the president of the state's largest university. The school enrolls 40,000 students and counts a quarter-million alumni living in Pennsylvania alone.
"I welcome eminent visitors to our campus everyday, including lots of Republicans, but [the McCain-Palin campaign] didn't want me to greet her or even attend the event," said Spanier.
Gov. Palin spoke Tuesday night before about 7,000 people at a "closed" event at the school's Rec Hall that was open only to people invited by the campaign.
Under university policy, candidates who open their appearances to all students and members of the public are allowed free use of university halls, other than incidental costs.
Because it was a "closed" event, with tickets controlled by the Republican party and the campaign, the university charged the campaign $8,000 for use of the hall, according to Penn State vice-president Bill Mahon.
"It was a decision made by a campaign advance staff member," said Mahon. "We were told that president Spanier could not come."
"My guess is this is just a young campaigner," added Mahon. "Certianly Gov. Palin would not be aware of this."
"We welcome one and all," said McCain-Palin spokesman Brian Rogers, "especially when we're going to a university, we'd want the folks in charge to welcome us. . . Obviously, if there was some miscommunication, that's regrettable."
Nobody "on the political level" made any decision to block Spanier because he was a Democrat, Rogers said, and noted that the school sent two other officials to meet Palin.
According to an account provided by Spanier's office, campaign aide Bermel called Spanier's office in response to an inquiry from school security about arranging for Spanier to greet Palin.
Bermel said that Spanier was not on the invitation list and that the campaign had not been previously told of his interest, and he "demanded" to speak with Spanier directly, according to the account.
Bermel indicated that he "had escorted President Bush to meet with kings, and that therefore there should be no barriers to speaking with the president of Penn State," according to Spanier's office.
Then Bermel allegedly stated, "He's a big Democrat. Why would he want to meet Palin?" and reiterated his request to speak with Spanier, who was not present.
"He didn't say any of this," McCain-Palin spokesman Brian Rogers said Thursday. "[Bermel] did not talk about – he never demanded to speak to the president directly. He never made the statement about escorting President Bush to meet kings. He didn't say any of that." To the contrary, Rogers insisted, Bermel and other campaign staff "were working to make sure we could accomodate the president."
Rogers said Bermel didn't even know who the president of Penn State was, much less his party affiliation. He confirmed that Bermel had worked for President Bush.
After the alleged conversation, senior Penn State administrators discussed the matter and decided "to defuse the awkwardness" by backing out of the greeting request with the explanation that Spanier had a schedule conflict.
Spanier, president of Penn State since 1995, said he has greeted a long list of candidates from both parties to the campus, including Republicans Sen. Arlen Specter, and former Governor and Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.
Former President Bill Clinton appeared Wednesday at Penn State. Clinton's speech was open to all who wanted to attend, so there was no charge for the use of the venue.
Spanier says he does not appear on stage or introduce candidates but is always eager "to officially welcome visitors to our campus."
"At a time when both campaigns are appealing to independents and people of the other party in our state, it seems like a strange decision," Spanier said.
Spanier is a well-known figure in Pennsylvania, overseeing a university with 40,000 students and an annual budget of $3.6 billion. He often substitutes for the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot at football games and joins the marching band on to the field wearing a drum.
He is chairman of the Association of American Universities and received an award last week from the FBI for his role as chair of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.