Standing in for the 2012 presidential candidates

Zach Gonzales (BA ’13)

After a full year of around-the-clock preparation and planning, Oct. 3, 2012, finally dawned. The University of Denver was primed for a successful presidential debate.

On Carnegie Green, the DU community assembled for DebateFest, featuring such local headliners as Nathaniel Rateliff, Zach Heckendorf and The Lumineers. Meanwhile, thousands of journalists representing more than 1,500 networks and news organizations from across the globe filed stage-setting stories for everyone from Reuters, CNN and Fox News to the BBC and The Times of India. And the two candidates—President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney—braced themselves for the first of three sparring matches.

But before 67 million viewers tuned in to watch the televised battle, broadcast live from the Ritchie Center’s Magness Arena, two DU students were needed to serve as stand-ins for a very important dress rehearsal. 

Months after the big event, Dia Mohamed (BS ’16), biology major and student senator for what was then the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, recounted what it was like to fill in for the president. 

“Carl Johnson, [executive director of Campus Life], approached me one day, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Are you a Democrat?’ Him being [Undergraduate Student Government’s] advisor, I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘How would you like to be a stand-in for President Obama?’ I had no idea what that meant, but I said, ‘Obama is in the sentence! Yeah, of course I’ll do it,’” Mohamed told videographers preparing a documentary on the University’s yearlong effort.  

Zach Gonzales (BA ’13), then a senior economics major and undergraduate student senator, was just as eager to fill his role at Romney’s podium. A decade after the debate, he looks back on his part in it with appreciation. “It was an honor to represent the University and my class,” he recalls. “I was proud.”

Today Gonzales, pictured above, has a successful career in venture capital. At the time, he was soaking up the DU experience, taking classes in business and the social sciences, running the Investment Banking and Capital Markets Club, and serving as president of the Cooking Club. 

On advice from friends, he ran for a student senator seat during his senior year—a decision that put him in the running to stand on the presidential debate stage. 

Despite his numerous accomplishments and qualifications, Gonzales thinks he was picked for a more practical reason: “I was the only guy tall enough and a Republican,” he says.

While cameras, lighting and audio were checked, Gonzales and Mohamed posed at the two podiums, answered mock questions and, demonstrating a bipartisan spirit, shook hands at center stage. That’s when one photographer snapped the money shot.  

That famous photo ended up on the cover of The New York Times—above the fold—the next morning. 

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