As a Cleveland-Marshall College of Law student in 1974, Russert attended the infamous "10-cent-beer night" at Cleveland Municipal Stadium that ended in drunken rioting by Indians fans.
"I went with $2 in my pocket," recalls the "Meet the Press" host. "You do the math."
Russert is taking a more sober approach to Tuesday's final matchup between the Democratic frontrunners before Ohio's make-or-break presidential primary on March 4.
Russert, dubbed "the quintessential Washington insider" by the Washington Post, actually grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from John Carroll University before attending CSU's law school. He partly paid for law school by booking a Bruce Springsteen concert at John Carroll before The Boss made it big.
He joined NBC after stints as an aide to former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, both Democrats.
"I was actually getting back to my roots - I was editor of my seventh- and eighth-grade newspaper," jokes Russert.
Russert says he preps for debates by keeping up with current events, examining transcripts of prior debates, and monitoring news from where the debate will occur. He says he tries to focus on "issues that are meaningful to people, and do it in an understandable way."
"I have a simple philosophy that you can't make tough decisions unless you can answer tough questions," he says. "I try to be persistent, but always civil."
He says his ties to the Cleveland area give him a good feel for issues that matter to Northeast Ohio, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures and a depressed economy. He anticipates the 9 p.m. debate will have a huge Ohio audience because it will be carried on NBC affiliates throughout the state, and also because "there is an intensity and interest in this election that I have never seen in my career as a journalist."
"It is the first time in 80 years where no incumbent president or vice president is seeking the nomination of one of the parties," says Russert. "Nobody was pre-ordained. The issues, like war, the economy, the environment, are very important to people. I can't go anywhere without people wanting to talk to me about it."
Obama's string of primary victories has given him momentum and a lead of roughly 150 elected delegates. Decisive victories in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania would restore Clinton's viability as a candidate, Russert says. Tuesday's debate will be a critical part of that.
"I think people are wondering what tack Sen. Clinton will take on Tuesday," Russert continues. "Will she be aggressive? Will she be more reflective on policy? Will she attempt to offer clear, distinct differences between herself and Obama? You never know until you get there."
Russert says the importance of Ohio and Florida in the general election and Ohio in this primary campaign "cannot be underestimated," although he expects Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada will also be crucial this year as changing demographics make them more winnable for Democrats.
Like any prominent media figure, Russert has critics. The left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters for America says he invites too many conservatives on his Sunday show and maintains some of his debate questions seem scripted by the Republican National Committee. The right-wing Media Research Center contends he's too soft on Democrats.
Closer to home, backers of former long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich accuse Russert of trivializing the Cleveland congressman in an October debate by asking if he'd seen a UFO at Shirley MacLaine's house, as the actress claimed in a recent book.
"I didn't know if we'd ever had a presidential candidate who believes in UFOs before, and thought it was a serious question," says Russert, who read about MacLaine's claims in The Plain Dealer. Russert says he also asked Kucinich debate questions about the Iraq war and the economy, and the UFO query was part of a lighthearted discussion on issues like costume preferences for Halloween, the date the debate occurred.
Russert says he finds himself in Cleveland once or twice a year, and likes going to Progressive Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
"It's going to be great to be back in Cleveland," Russert said. "I really look forward to seeing my old friends and making new ones."