Students tune in on debates, poised to reappear on political radar

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – After months of political warfare conducted through books, movies, ads, attacks, and counterattacks, voters will finally be treated to live face-to-face debates between the vying candidates, and this time college students are paying attention.

Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry agreed to three 90-minute presidential debates. Jim Lehrer of the NewsHour on PBS will moderate the first debate Thursday at the University of Miami in Florida, which will focus on foreign policy and homeland security.

“Students are a unique voting group and generally speaking they don’t vote in big numbers,” said Sean Aday, assistant professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University. “But this year there is some evidence that they’re paying a lot more attention to the election, and so it seems that they will give more attention to this debate.”

Some undecided students, like University of Miami senior Elizabeth Lieb, are hinging their decision on the outcome of the debates. A registered Independent, Lieb says that she is ready to be “swayed by either candidate.” She also says that most students are starting to get caught up in the excitement of the election and that the debates will be watched closely by people in her area.

“People in Florida truly understand that your vote really does count, and so absolutely, definitely, most students will watch the debate,” Lieb said. “That’s one other chance to really sit down and to really get what’s going on. Maybe people haven’t had as much time to read what the candidates are all about but now they have a chance to watch the two candidates arguing and to see what they stand for.”

“Students here really do care about what is going on,” said Anna Berkowitz, a Washington University junior majoring in Spanish and Business. “Although I think that people are already aware of issues and are active in whatever political parties they might associate with, I also think that having debates brings it closer to home.”

The next debate will take place on Oct. 8 at the Washington University of St. Louis, Missouri where undecided voters will have a chance to ask the candidates questions. The final debate will focus on domestic and economic policy and will take place on Oct. 13 at Arizona State University — and an Oct. 5 vice presidential debate will be held in Cleveland.

Both candidates spent the past week in deep preparation for the first debate, typically the most watched. Though traditionally Republicans are seen as stronger on foreign policy issues, continuing casualties in Iraq may help the senator frame his arguments. Kerry’s challenge will be to convince voters of the failures of Bush’s Iraq policy while outlining a victory plan of his own.

Bush hopes to keep Kerry on the offensive by pointing out contradictions in his voting record and statements. Both candidates are known as good debaters and have each won most of the major debates in their respective political histories.

Some caution that the candidates will need to readjust and refine their message to keep the younger voters’ attention. Professor Kelly McDonald, who teaches communication at Arizona State University cautioned that although the debates may spark intense interest in the election in students of debate hosting schools, it will be harder to retain nationwide student attention unless the candidates start to speak on issues that matter specifically to younger voters.

“Students are really turned off because they don’t understand why the war records or the lack of war records in Vietnam for either of these guys is really material to how they’re going to be as presidents,” said McDonald. “A bunch of people have expressed concern if Bush is re-elected whether there will be a draft. A bunch of people have expressed concern about Kerry’s ability to lead…So the debates will be critical litmus test to answer both these concerns.”

David Ingenito, a UM sophomore majoring in communication is “excited about the foreign policy topic” but would like to see the candidates talk about gay marriage issues and social security. Berkowitz says that abortion and perhaps even taxes are some other topics that students want to hear discussed in the debates.

“Whoever is elected will be president for the next four years and I’ll graduate in two,” said Berkowitz. “So [the candidates’] goals, policies, and agenda are going to start affecting me more so than they are now as a college student.”

“[Debates] can matter very much because debates are the most substantive moments of the campaign,” said Aday. “They are the best opportunity for voters to learn what a candidate stands for, what their vision is, what they plan on doing in the future, and what kind of person they are.”

Indeed most students acknowledge the usefulness of the debates, though not all will be tuning in. Some don’t see the need to watch the debates as they have already chosen their candidate.

Alex Drossler, a senior International Affairs major at GW, said that he’s been paying “minimal” attention to the campaign and isn’t certain if he’ll watch the debate.

“I think debates matter but I don’t think they’re gonna affect how people vote,” said Drossler. “I think people who are going to vote for Bush will vote for him regardless of how the debates will go, and the same goes for Kerry. The debates are useful to discuss the issues but I don’t think they’re going to affect the election — maybe for moderates who are undecided — but everyone I know has already made up their mind.”

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