HUDSON — In Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul's dreams, Florida would go the way of Hudson Middle School in Tuesday's vote.
Students casting ballots in the school's mock GOP primary on Friday overwhelmingly backed the Texas congressman after spending weeks studying the candidates' views on the issues and watching debates among the hopefuls.
They liked Paul's anti-war stance, as well as his willingness to talk straight and not attack his opponents to make a point.
"He's just like this down-to-earth dude who just seems like he knows what he's doing," seventh-grader Danielle Heidkamp said.
All day long, social studies teacher Judy Walker had her classes focus on the primary. She showed them clips from Thursday's debate in Jacksonville, then gave them voter ID numbers so they could log in on classroom laptops to vote online.
Afterward, they discussed who they liked and why, based on their research.
"I'm very politically passionate," Walker explained. "It's very important that they learn to be part of the process. … They've been very mature about the things they think about."
Eighth-grader Alyssa Bacon said she spent time at home reviewing the candidate websites, as well as the articles about why she might not want to vote for them. She listened to the way the hopefuls presented themselves, in addition to the things they said.
"I like Ron Paul," Alyssa said. "He gets right to his answer. … The only thing I don't like is his view on sexuality."
She and others said they found their studies about the candidates more important than lessons about the past.
"This stuff could really, actually mess up our lives right now, if we get someone wrong," eighth-grader Steven Stauff said.
"It's preparing us," added eighth-grader Cheyenne Gainey. "Our parents, they tell us who they are voting for and they tell us their opinions, but they don't let us tell them our opinions."
Walker welcomed a free and frank discussion about the students' views. After talking about why most of them preferred Paul, she said, "Let's talk about the ones that you don't like."
She mentioned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who got no votes in the eighth-grade advanced U.S. history class.
"Oh my gosh," eighth-grader Jacob Wentz blurted out. "I don't like any of his views. He is constantly bashing the other people. I don't like how he wants automatically war. I just think he's shady."
"I don't like the way he talks," chimed in Alexis Duran. "He just doesn't pull me in."
Chase Evans couldn't hold back.
"I really don't like Rick Santorum," he announced of the former Pennsylvania senator, who also got no votes in the class. "I believe he's really pompous. He dodges questions by saying how good he is."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney garnered a handful of votes in a couple of classes.
Sixth-grader Enjoli Butterbaugh said she liked Romney despite his flaws.
"Even if he does flip flop, I agree with everything he says," Enjoli said.
She then pointedly disagreed with the majority of her voting schoolmates.
"The one person I wouldn't want to vote for is Ron Paul," she said. "I don't think he has the traits of a leader. I wouldn't want my leader to be a friendly old grandpa."
Sixth-grader Matyi Cseh, who disagreed, said he wished he and others his age could have a real voice in this critical election.
"At this age, all of us — well, most of us — are educated well enough to go out and make a decision for us that would affect us," Matyi said.
Tyler Derner, also a sixth-grader, said even though that won't happen, he was glad Walker involved the students in the conversation.
"I think it's cool that we can talk about it and voice our opinions to each other," he said. "Even though it won't really count, it will be meaningful to us."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.