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At crossroads of economic crisis, debate disappoints

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
October 4, 2012 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Merced, California, has one of the nation's highest foreclosure and unemployment rates
  • Debate watchers in that city wanted the candidates to lay out plans for the economy
  • Many felt Romney's polices were off track and Obama's performance fell flat

(CNN) -- Groups of graduate students who hang out at The Partisan, an indie band bar near the University of California-Merced campus, like their liquor and their politics straight up.

Many of them felt they only got one of those things after watching the debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday night.

"I don't know what universe Romney is living in," said Beth Hernandez-Jason, a doctoral student in American Latino literature. "I was kicked off my parents' health insurance by age 25 as was my little sister and she was reinstated because of the changes in the health care system."

And Hernandez-Jason, like several people in the bar, felt Obama's performance fell flat.

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"I am disappointed in Obama. I felt like he was holding back. He's too nice," she said. "I understand that he has to come across nice but come on. After you hear Bill Clinton talk at the convention, he was willing to say it straight and not pull punches and it's unfortunate that (Obama) doesn't feel comfortable doing that."

Obama and Romney sparred over differences on the economy. In their points and counterpoints, both men drew regularly on examples of people who they met on the campaign trail who've been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Some of those people were from towns like Merced, a community at the crossroads of the nation's foreclosure and unemployment crises.

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The city has the nation's second highest foreclosure rate and an unemployment rate that at 17.5% is twice the national average. It is also a city that is nearly 50% Latino, a voting block both candidates are trying to woo.

"We're on just about every list it seems like," said Mike Murphy, a Republican and Merced city councilman who helped lead a community discussion on the University of California-Merced campus after the debate. "People's priorities here (are) jobs, jobs, jobs."

For generations, many people in Merced have depended on the land, growing things like almonds, strawberries and grapes. But times are hard and farm work is harder to come by these days as growers are forced to tighten their belts in a down economy.

In an area that some residents call California's "fruit basket," the housing crisis has further compounded the area's woes.

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At that debate watching party, people gathered at the university library's "Bobcat Lair" were glued to the television as the two candidates faced off. When the debate ended, the room full of students wanted to talk about education funding and student loans -- a topic the candidates spent little time discussing -- and jobs, Murphy said.

People in Merced want "to see what either administration is going to do with unemployment and foreclosures," said Josh Pedrozo, a Democrat and Merced city councilman who also helped lead the post debate discussion.

Speculators flooded the area at the height of the housing market in a frenzy to build and sell homes. Just a few short years later, many of those homes were often left half finished when builders ran out of money or empty when their owners faced foreclosure after losing jobs and being unable to make mortgage payments.

"Merced is ground zero for all of those concerns," said Dorie Perez, a Merced native who is pursuing her doctorate in political science at the local University of California campus. "I want a plan and articulation of policies that I haven't seen. I want the bread and butter."

What we learned from the first debate

Perez has watched her community struggle to recover from the recession. She moved back to her hometown in the San Francisco Bay area after working for the state of California and the city of Oakland.

She returned to a city vastly changed.

"The Central Valley is struggling as a whole. Merced and Merced County is not the most affluent place," Perez said. "People need governmental services and the threat to those programs is scary for this area. ... We need government help for the average person. It's pretty tough here."

In a place struggling to recover, the new college campus is seen as a symbol that things are turning around. The school, which opened in 2005, is one of the nation's first research universities built in the 21st century.

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On Wednesday night, Perez, too, felt the president gave a lackluster debate performance.

"It was surprisingly dry. I was unimpressed to be honest. I know the expectations weren't that high for the president but I wanted him to be more aggressive," Perez said adding that classmates talked about the topic at The Partisan.

Most evenings, Perez spends her time poring over her studies in the hopes of one day getting a doctorate and a highly coveted tenure track teaching position. In the process she's taken out thousands of dollars worth of student loans, so she listened with keen interest to the any mentions by the candidates' of addressing student loan rates and soaring tuition costs.

"I'm under 30. I'm trying to start a career and a life," she said. "Academic departments are shrinking their budget and the idea that I'm going to put next five years of my life into it is terrifying."

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