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Inside Politics

Dueling Democrats fire up USC students

By Gina Goodhill
Special to CNN

Some University of Southern California students protested the way tickets were distributed for the Democratic debate on campus.

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Campus Vibe
University of Southern California
America Votes 2004
Presidential primaries

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 Gina Goodhill, student reporter at the Daily Trojan, the University of Southern California student newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the University of Southern California.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Political activism received a boost at the University of Southern California when the school played a key role in the run-up to the crucial "Super Tuesday" contests.

The campus was the scene of the February 26 debate co-sponsored by CNN and the Los Angeles Times, giving USC students a chance to see the Democratic presidential contenders tackle such issues as the death penalty and same-sex marriage.

In honor of the occasion, students organized a week of political activities to encourage classmates to get involved in the 2004 presidential election.

Throughout the week of the debate, students ran a political caucus, a mock debate between different Democratic candidates and the Green Party, a teach-in by USC professors and a political involvement fair.

Melissa Gunning, who organized the student-run mock debate through the USC chapter of Democracy Matters, said excitement generated by the debate will make students take notice.

"By putting them all together, it's inescapable to avoid. Everywhere [students] look, they'll see politics," added Gunning, a senior majoring in international relations and psychology.

A two-hour caucus with USC student and national representatives for Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and President Bush was the first political event of week. An estimated 80 people attended, while 40 stayed until the final vote.

The results contrasted sharply with outcomes in this year's campaign (Kucinich won 50 percent of the votes in the straw poll), but many students said they found the caucus to be helpful.

"It was a good experience," said Scott Sternberg, a freshman majoring in economics.

Before the caucus, he said, "I thought I knew who I was going to vote for, but now I'm thinking of changing it."

The political spirit continued the next day, with a one-hour debate in front of the statue of Tommy Trojan -- the university's collegiate symbol -- involving student representatives for Kerry and Edwards, and GreenNet, an environment and human rights group.

Student correspondent Gina Goodhill dons her school sweat shirt.
Student correspondent Gina Goodhill dons her school sweat shirt.

Katie Swain, a senior majoring in general studies, said that having students express their political beliefs added a new dimension to the political process.

"It's helping me to see how people my age think about [the candidates]," she said.

Tommy Trojan proved to be a popular location as a student-moderated "Teach-in on Election 2004" and a political involvement fair were held simultaneously in its presence.

As student clubs tabled in a large semicircle, a panel of USC professors casually spoke on a variety of issues surrounding the 2004 election, such as foreign policy and youth voter turnout.

Kelsey Browne, a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism, said she was mainly interested in the tables dedicated to particular candidates.

"The last couple of weeks there has been an increased political vibe around campus," she said, adding that students were really "stepping up" to create a political spirit.

Complaints over debate tickets

As focus on the debate intensified, some USC students said they were frustrated over the scarcity of seats reserved for them and the way in which student tickets were distributed.

Míchel Martinez, a junior majoring in political science and fine arts, complained that the debate was inaccessible to students. Blocks of tickets were allotted to both CNN and the Los Angeles Times, which sponsored the debate.

Geoffrey Baum, director of public affairs for the Annenberg School for Communication, said that USC tried to include as many students as possible in the debate. He said more than 500 seats were reserved for politically themed classes, more seats than those given to CNN, the Times or nonstudent USC affiliates.

The Undergraduate Political Science Association also designated a common location where students could gather to enjoy free food and watch the televised debate.

Courtney Jordan, a sophomore majoring in international relations, said she was able to attend the debate because she works with the events staff at USC. She said she also thought the way students were selected to attend wasn't fair.

A group of 30 to 40 students took their objections a step further by staging a one-hour demonstration as people entered Bovard Auditorium, where the debate was held.

"It [showed] you can dissent, you can question. You have a right and a duty," said Meetu Mahil, a senior majoring in political science and international relations who participated in the demonstration.

Overall, the success of the week's events encouraged some students to create further political events after the primaries.

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