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Collegians on O'Donnell and Coons: What debate? What witch?

By Rachel Streitfeld, CNN Producer
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Conservatives make push for youth vote
  • Eyes of the nation were on Delaware last Wednesday for O'Donnell-Coons debate
  • Some students at University of Delaware weren't aware a debate was going to held
  • One student had not heard of Christine O'Donnell's witch comment until her ad aired
  • Another student: "I'm focused on school and trying to survive my freshman year"

Newark, Delaware (CNN) -- The nation's comedians are following the Delaware Senate race, but are the state's college students doing so as well?

The campaign for Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat has gotten much attention in the weeks leading up to midterm elections on November 2, largely because of revelations about Republican Christine O'Donnell's past, including an old television clip where she said she had dabbled in witchcraft and questions about her financial and educational history.

After Barack Obama's campaign famously focused on turning out the youth vote in 2008, political analysts have debated how large a role voters younger than 30 might play.

So how much attention are young voters in Delaware paying to a political race that is perhaps one of the most closely followed in the nation?

Perhaps not as much as the political parties might hope. O'Donnell debated Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, at a forum at the University of Delaware in Newark last Wednesday.

The area around the university exudes a laid-back collegiate charm. Students stream through an expansive grassy quad, heading to class, to study at the local coffee shop or to share beers around a picnic table at a nearby bar.

Video: Rep. Castle on Delaware race
Video: O'Donnell ad man initially hesitant

On the afternoon of the debate, political activists on campus took over part of the quad.

A smattering of students waved Coons and O'Donnell signs. Perhaps the most enthusiastic group were members of the campus LGBT club, which paraded through campus waving flags and chanting, "Just say no to Christine O." Freshman Kevin Neff carried a Christine O'Donnell sign and said the nation had gotten the wrong idea about the Republican candidate.

"I think they've tried to cast her as another Sarah Palin, but she really wants to focus on the issues," Neff said. "She stands for less government and lower taxes, and that's really important for this election."

But some of the Democratic and Republican sign-wavers who gathered near the television cameras were older and long past college graduation. And just 20 yards from the site of the debate, many students said they haven't been following the race.

"I didn't even know there was a debate until a few days ago," said freshman Teresa Avery. "I was going to buy a ticket to the football game," when the ticket seller mentioned the upcoming debate.

Another student thought the debate involved a race in the neighboring state of Maryland.

Others said an overabundance of schoolwork consumed most of their time.

"I'm focused on school and trying to survive my freshman year," said Devin Appel. "If I had time, I would definitely follow politics."

Even O'Donnell's much-parodied comments about witchcraft weren't universally known. Freshman David Berg was confused when he saw O'Donnell's first campaign ad, in which she reassures voters "I'm not a witch. I'm you."

"I heard that she said 'witch' on the ad, but I was like, 'What?' " Berg said.

Many upperclassmen on campus seemed to have more time and interest in following politics, though their news came from nontraditional media.

"It's everywhere -- Facebook, TV shows that we watch now," said senior Chrissy Flynn. "It's the first time Delaware's really been in the national spotlight."

Lola Owotomo, a sophomore, said she'd followed the race in part by watching the comedy show "The Colbert Report." She was considering watching the debate online if it was available.

"Even though they're not the president, the Senate and House of Representatives make a lot of the decisions in this country," Owotomo said.

For students who watch shows such as Colbert, "The Daily Show" or "Saturday Night Live," they may be getting only half of the story. A member of the College Democrats whose sign said "Christine O'Donnell turned me into a newt" was hoping that by the end of the night that at least some students would learn some basic facts about the race.

"I've found that more people can tell me crazy things about O'Donnell more than they can tell me anything about Chris Coons -- even his name," junior Nikki Roth said.

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