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Debating parties or partying the debate

By Dwayne Robinson
Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Campus Vibe is a feature that provides student perspectives on the 2004 election from selected colleges across the United States. This week's contributor is Dwayne Robinson, student writer at The Alligator, the University of Florida independent student newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the University of Florida.

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UF adjunct professor of journalism Wayne Garcia moderates a student focus group prior to the first presidential debate.
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Campus Vibe

GAINESVILLE, Florida (CNN) -- In the home of Gator football, University of Florida students took a traditionally serious affair -- a presidential debate -- and turned it into a sporting event.

UF College Republicans congregated at the Po' Boys Creole Café, where some members drank each time a candidate used the words "Iraq" or "terrorism."

"We were having a great time. It was a lot of fun," club president Hunter Williams said.

"For College Republicans, this is like having two football seasons," he added.

"We had two football games this week. We had the debate and the football game against Arkansas."

At least three debate parties were held at Gainesville eateries and bars during the first presidential face-off between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

The debate took place September 30 at the University of Miami.

UF political science professor David Hedge said such events might be effective in interesting young voters in politics.

"The debates are much like football games ... in terms of people coming together and watching them -- a competitive-type of thing in public," Hedge said.

"I think people go out in sports bar to watch games in the same way they go out to watch debates. I personally stay home for both of them because I'm old."

But the UF College Democrats are not.

About 160 of them watched the debate from The Swamp Restaurant, president Jill Greco said.

"We had two kegs," she added. Much of the crowd, watching the debate on three TV sets, was quiet -- except for the occasional outburst of laughter following a so-called "Bushism," Greco said.

A similar scene could be found at The Orange and Brew, where Pi Sigma Alpha, a political science honor society, held a bipartisan gathering.

"Nobody yelled at the TV," society president Stacey Price said. "It was like they listened to what (debate moderator) Jim Lehrer said in the beginning about no outbursts."

"The atmosphere is what makes the debate fun," Price insisted. "You might as well go out and hang out with some of your friends from class or meet new people if you're going to watch the debate anyway."

A focused group

Some UF students chose a more traditional debate-watching forum and participated in a focus group sponsored by UF's student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator.

The atmosphere there was markedly laid-back as students joked about who was sexier in the 1970s -- Bush or Kerry.

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Student correspondent Dwayne Robinson reads in front of statues of school mascots Albert and Alberta.

No word yet on how panelists voted on that question, but the panel's one independent, three Democrats and five Republicans, agreed by a 7-2 margin that Bush had won the debate.

General consensus, at least in the media, declared Kerry the victor, but some students may have been viewing the debate from a different perspective.

"Kerry didn't connect with me," The Alligator quoted panelist Daniel Milian.

"Like that one word that I didn't even know what he meant -- Falluja? I need a dictionary to understand him."


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