Mike Smith's decision to enroll at Wake Forest University in 1985 went unnoticed by school officials, but it probably was the school's biggest recruiting coup since landing a golfer named Arnold Palmer.

Smith, 21, a senior politicial science major from Glen Mills, Pa., is credited as the visionary who dared to dream Wake Forest could host a presidential debate.George Bush and Michael Dukakis square off on the stage of Wake Forest's Wait Chapel Sunday night, climaxing an 18-month odyssey for Smith and two student friends that will provide them with a lifetime of practical experience.

The bright national spotlight that accompanies the inaugural presidential debate for 1988 could just as easily have been focused on the other schools Smith considered attending.

"I wanted to come South," he said in explaining his choice of Wake Forest. "I took the standard Southern tour - William and Mary, Duke, Davidson, Washington and Lee.

"But I was struck by this campus. I could see I would get more personal attention and not be just a number or a statistic here."

Smith, like Palmer who entered Wake Forest in 1948, has certainly not been a statistic. Last year he won the student body presidency by a landslide.

The debate dream started in April 1987 when Smith coordinated a lecture on the Wake Forest campus by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"I got to thinking that it's important for college campuses to be a part of the political arena," he said. "It's important that students hear the messages our political leaders have to say, and it's important also that political leaders listen to college students."

Smith told his friend Scott DuBois about his dream and later outlined the same vision to Beth Dawson.

"I want to bring a presidential debate to campus next year," Smith told them. "I need your help, I need a commitment."

"I took it to heart," Dawson recalled. "I thought it was a great idea. And the ball got rolling."

Smith then took his plan to school officials, who reacted positively.

In May 1987, Smith wrote to Janet Brown, executive director of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Two months later, he and Sandra Connor, Wake Forest's director of public information, met with Brown in Washington.

From the outset, Brown said the student's proposal was among the very best of the 35 applications she received from across the country. Strong community support for the event in Winston-Salem coupled with the student initiative made for a winning combination, she said.

When Wake Forest was named one of three debate sites, the school pushed aside the common practice of using professional planners. Smith, DuBois and Dawson were asked to stay on campus and help direct debate preparations at $500 a month.

"I have learned more doing this than I could possibly have learned sitting in class," said DuBois, 21, a politics and English major from Marietta, Ga.

But when did it really sink in that Wake Forest's big moment was at hand?

"I guess it was this week," Smith said. "Seeing the NBC trucks pulling in. The rigs from the major networks, and seeing the 1,500 reporters begin to converge on the campus.

"It's exciting. Very overwhelming."