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Political football

  • Jon Kelly
  • 27 Sep 08, 06:56 AM GMT

The University of Mississippi's students had a good excuse for a party. It's not every day that the main candidates for the White House show up on your campus, after all.

As Senators Obama and McCain slugged it out in the presidential debate, hundreds of young voters were watching on an outdoor big screen just yards away. Never mind Spin Alley, this was where the real action was.

It was a boisterous, good-natured crowd. Obama would score a point, and his supporters would cheer and wave their placards. Then McCain would land a blow, and his fans would roar their approval too.

geoff203.jpgI really enjoyed the atmosphere. It made me want to attend a Mississippi Rebels game.

And I was impressed with the level of engagement. I can't imagine so many British students showing such passion for Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But in a crowd this partisan, this was never going to be about weighing up the respective merits of the candidates. It was college football by other means.

On one hand, you had Geoff Brown, 22, who was holding up an Obama poster when we got chatting.

McCain hadn't offended Geoff. But the Democratic candidate was pressing all the right buttons for him.

"I'm loving Obama tonight," he smiled. "He's talking about all the things that affect people in Mississippi - jobs, the economy, healthcare.

"OK, I'm partisan. But these are the issues that win people over."

But then you had someone like Ashley Durkee, a 25-year-old clinical psychology graduate student.

She'd already been leaning towards McCain before the debate. And the Republican's robust stance on the military had pushed her further into his column.

"This is his area," she added. "I would have expected him to do well on these issues, and I thought he was impressive.

"I feel like his idea about national security and how to keep the country strong were really convincing. Obama didn't match him."

Throughout the crowd, the pattern repeated itself.

Jacquelyn Brubaker, 27, was another spectator whose views were already well-entrenched.

The Bush years had not been kind to Jacquelyn. She had earned two degrees - a Bachelor's in social work, and a Master's in education - but was working in a bar in Oxford because it paid better than the roles for which she was qualified.

"America's ready for change," she said. "Obama talked about investing in things like education, moving our troops from Iraq to Afghanistan - this is what we need right now.

"John McCain continues to prove that he's out of touch with the American people."

At the same time, though, there was Matthew McDowell, 28. Majoring in physics after serving in the Navy, Matthew left the debate with exactly the opposite impression.

"I think they're both impressive performers," he said. "But with Obama, it's about giving a speech.

"With McCain, it's about delivering facts - his voting record, what he's done in the past. That's what resonates with me."

You can credit Obama's charisma, McCain's gravitas or Sarah Palin's appeal to the Republican base. But in Mississippi, at least, I don't think either candidate will lose because of lack of enthusiasm among their core voters.

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