This presidential debate brought to you by ... Budweiser?

2012-10-22T00:10:00Z 2012-12-13T14:18:06Z This presidential debate brought to you by ... Budweiser?By Tim Logan 314-340-8291

Tonight in Florida, President Barack Obama and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney will take to the stage for their third and final debate.

And when they do, the King of Beers will be busy behind the scenes.

The public doesn't see it, but Anheuser-Busch InBev plays a prominent role in putting on the presidential debates, and has for 20 years. It's a major corporate sponsor — widely believed to be the largest, though donation figures are not made public— of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit entity that runs these quadrennial set-to's.

Even as corporate sponsorship of the debates has become something of a political football this year, leading a few other sponsors to back off, the brewer is still taking part in a big way.

“We really believe the debates are a critical part of the political process,” said A-B InBev spokeswoman Christine Czernejewski. “They provide voters with a lot of information about the candidates, and we're really proud to be a part of it.”

A-B has been involved in the debates since 1992, when Washington University was hosting one and asked the brewer for help. A-B agreed, and has been an official sponsor since 1996. It's not like sponsoring the Fiesta Bowl; these aren't the “Anheuser-Busch InBev Presidential Debates.” The brewer's involvement is more subtle. But it's there.

It is unclear how much A-B InBev pays to help put on the debates. The commission doesn't break out its donations and Czernejewski declined to comment. But in 1996, it donated $550,000, according to George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, a nonprofit that is working to change the current system.

And the brewer provides a lot of free food and drink. At each debate, it sets up hospitality tents with dinner and beer for the small army of volunteers, reporters and politicos who are stuck inside the tight security perimeter.

This year, A-B brought its corporate chef to the first debate in Denver to make ribs and shrimp, and the company handed out bottles of its new “Zip Code” small-batch Budweisers in Hempstead, N.Y., last week. There are souvenir mugs, too, and lots of signs, so attendees know who brought the beer. And, Czernejewski said, a lot of signage for A-B's responsible drinking campaigns.

“Any time we have a good opportunity to highlight the great things we're doing, we're going to do that,” she said.

The recipients of this messaging are not the general beer-drinking public, of course, but a narrow band of political and media elite. But there can be value in that, too, said Jim Fisher, a marketing professor at St. Louis University.

“I'm not sure how attuned the average voter would be to this stuff, but maybe those in the know, in the Washington fishbowl, would be aware of it,” he said. “That may redound to (A-B's) benefit.”

If nothing else, sponsoring the event gives the brewer a chance to rub some powerful elbows.

A-B InBev chief executive Carlos Brito attended the first debate in Denver, along with North American Zone President Luiz Fernando Edmond and other top executives.They get tickets and invites to a reception and host “the dominant social gathering space” at the big event, Farah said.

“They're in these conversations,” he said. “They get access.”

Of course, Anheuser-Busch is no stranger in the halls of power.

The company has spent $3 million or more each of the past six years on lobbying the federal government, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. It has spent $1.9 million through September of this year.

A-B InBev also is a big donor to candidates up and down the ballot. Its political action committee has given $1 million to federal campaigns so far this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while donations flow to state and local candidates all over the country. Compared to all that, sponsoring the debates every four years is relatively small change, Fisher said.

“It's an extension of their lobbying effort,” he said.

But it's an effort fewer companies are choosing to make.

While past sponsors have ranged from AARP to IBM to Sara Lee Corp., this year only two — A-B InBev and Southwest Airlines, which provides free airfare to debate staff — are big names. There are just seven sponsors in all, including a law firm, a D.C. tax attorney and the International Bottled Water Association. Three sponsors — the YWCA, ad agency BBH New York and electronics giant Philips — dropped out this fall amid pressure from third-party activists who wanted more than just the Democratic and Republican candidates on the stage.

“While the Commission on Presidential Debates is a non-partisan organization, their work may appear to support bipartisan politics,” said Philips spokesman Mark Stephenson in a statement. “We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn't provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics. As such, no company funds have been or will be used to support the Commission on Presidential Debates.”

In response to the criticisms, both the commission and A-B InBev have said repeatedly that sponsors have no role in the format or questions or any other aspect of the debate process. From the company's perspective, said Czernejewski, it's simply a way to be a good corporate citizen.

Tim Logan is a business writer at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @tlwriter.

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