Friday, October 1, 2004

College-age audience had already made pick

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

Panelists spoke to UC students about the election Thursday before they watched the presidential debate in Tangeman University Center.
Brandon Welker (foreground) and LaVandez Jones listen to speakers at the forum preceding the debate.

The several hundred students watching Thursday night's presidential debate at the University of Cincinnati looked at times like moviegoers, at times like sports fans, and at times like students in a college symposium.

Whoever the pundits decide won last night's debate, it was clear that most in this group weren't going to change their minds based on a 90-minute exchange.

Bush supporters whooped and hollered when they thought their man scored a point. Kerry supporters didn't so much cheer their candidate as laugh at Bush's perceived missteps. "Go get 'em, cowboy!" yelled one Kerry supporter while Bush answered an early question.

"I find it funny because I don't understand why anyone would support him. I can't even make a clear argument," said Kerry supporter Kelly Hall, 20, a sophomore chemistry major from Wapakoneta. "I laugh, I guess, because it's easier than getting mad."

Matt Perin, 21, a senior from Colerain Township who wore a Students for Bush T-shirt, acknowledged that his candidate wasn't the smoothest debater but said the emphasis on style over substance was "childish."

"All they're concerned about is getting rid of Bush," he said. "They have an uninspiring candidate who doesn't have any real solutions."

The experts say the students' reaction demonstrates a fundamental truth of presidential debates - they tend to reinforce attitudes rather than change them.

That's not to say they're not important.

"What you're watching tonight is an historic event," said Kimberly Downing of UC's Institute for Policy Research and co-director of the Ohio Poll. "Think about it - it's the only time in a campaign that you get to see them together."

So what's more important: style or substance?

"It's actually both," Downing said. "In style, it's obvious, because it's a televised event. Also on substance, the debates provide that policy forum, and much of the debate is policy issues. There will be challenges of a candidate's record, and there will also be evaluations of a candidate's character."

Downing was watching for two things: Did the candidates - especially Kerry - look "presidential?" And what were the most dramatic moments of clashing ideas?

While some were watching for who scored the most points, those who watch foreign policy were just happy to have an entire 90-minute debate on the world outside America's borders.

"As someone who studies foreign policy, we usually don't get talked to during American presidential elections a lot," said Richard Harknett, a political science professor at UC.

Earlier, a panel of Ohio political journalists - Michael Curtain of the Columbus Dispatch, Tom Suddes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Bill Hershey of the Dayton Daily News - described the state's political landscape.


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