WESLEY CHAPEL — Sarah Palin hit Tampa on Sunday. Joe Biden stumped in New Port Richey on Monday. Talk has Barack Obama and John McCain returning to the bay area before Election Day.
Cardboard cutouts of the candidates sufficed at John Long Middle School early Monday as the students turned their attention to the campaign that has kept swing-state Florida abuzz.
Students played surrogate for the hopefuls in a morning debate that the school televised into every classroom in an effort to get the adolescents more attuned to the presidential election.
"It's sort of like our lives depend upon it this time," explained seventh-grader Mikhaela Dieudonne, a member of Team Obama. "It's going to decide if I'm going to go to college, or if people are going to keep their jobs. That's why I'm really interested in it."
She and other debaters — three each were chosen to represent Obama and McCain out of nearly 200 who applied— hoped their schoolmates would listen carefully to the words they spent two months researching. But they worried that many wouldn't care.
"I think they tune it out …because they can't vote," said eighth-grader Kayleigh Bentley, another Team Obama member.
But as moderator Josh Arnold, a geography teacher, intoned his welcome, students across the school hushed to listen to the candidates' views on energy, education, health care and other key issues.
Behind the scenes, the debaters took deep breaths to calm themselves, trying all the while to keep from rustling papers or otherwise disturbing the live broadcast. Nerves jangled despite weeks of study and a dry run on Friday.
In the classrooms, students murmured, or sometimes cheered, their support for the senators. (Sorry, no representatives for the third-party candidates.)
"Obama is going to win," one girl whispered.
"Go McCain!" a boy shouted.
It turned out that many of the students had strong views about the race.
"In the beginning, I was for Obama," said sixth-grader Demetrius Berkeley. "When my mom took me (to see Sarah Palin), I learned a lot more about McCain. I like his plan, because he's going to drop taxes but Obama is going to raise them."
"Shut up. That is a lie," blurted classmate Tajuan DuPree, who sat beside Demetrius as they watched the debate. "Obama has better rights. He would … raise more money for the poor. He will help them out. And he will not raise taxes. He will lower taxes, unlike McCain."
Khalid Faraj joined in the conversation. He noted that many voters have said they don't support Obama because they think he is Muslim, or because he is African-American.
"That doesn't even make sense," Khalid said, as his friends picked up on the string. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Each said the morning debate helped them to shape their views and though they couldn't vote themselves, "I'm telling my parents about this so they can," Tajuan said.
Students in Arnold's first period class said they also learned new things about the candidates. And they liked the format.
"It was more interesting seeing kids involved than news reporters saying, 'Oh, Barack Obama did this or that,' " seventh-grader Amanda Runyan said, adding that the information presented swayed her view from McCain to Obama. "They were very convincing."
The teachers who organized the event considered the debate a successful civics lesson in that they could engage students in the process beyond the news sound bites and negative ads they see on television.
"It's huge," said language arts teacher Jamie Fromm. "Some of these kids will be able to vote in the next election. We wanted to make sure they understand how important it is to vote and to know each candidate."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.