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All eyes were on Saint Mary's College on Sept. 1 as Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina squared off in a spirited debate at LeFevre Theatre â€“ the first showdown in one of the most closely watched political races in the nation.
As the candidates traded barbs before 350 invited guests, including about 155 from Saint Mary's, other students watched the debate on a big-screen TV in Hagerty Lounge. More than 70 reporters and photographers from Associated Press, Fox News, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and dozens of California newspapers and television stations filed their stories from a specially constructed media room in the Soda Center.
Students were enthusiastic about the political debate, and the media and community attention it brought to the campus, which last garnered national media attention during the men's basketball team's advance to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
"It was nice to have a bigger political event here to get more students involved," said Natasha Davis, a sophomore majoring in politics.
In the debate, which was co-sponsored by KTVU, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle and Saint Mary's, the candidates underscored their ideological differences on social and economic issues. But the attacks turned personal when it came to the issue of jobs. Fiorina painted Boxer as a "bitterly partisan" extremist who had failed to bring more jobs to California. Boxer attacked Fiorina for laying off more than 30,000 workers and shipping jobs to China while she ran Hewlett-Packard and taking a $21 million severance package.
After the debate, Saint Mary's professors and political analysts weighed in during on-camera interviews. Father Mike Russo, who teaches journalism and communications, told reporters, "Fiorina looked senatorial and had a good command of facts. But frankly, I think Boxer won the sound bite contest with her point that Fiorina created more jobs in China."
Steve Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts, was interviewed by Fox News.
"Both candidates were trying to reassure and energize their core base of voters on social issues, such as the environment, Proposition 8 (on same-sex marriage) and immigration," he said. But they turned to personal attacks to "tap into voter dissatisfaction with the economy and reach out to the undecided and disenchanted voters."
Before and during the debate, several dozen protesters from the two camps waved placards and chanted in a peaceful demonstration at the campus' entrance. Outside the LeFevre Theatre, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass, a 1963 SMC alumnus, along with Saint Mary's English professor Brenda Hillman and several others, staged a protest for peace.
Following the debate, the highly ranked Saint Mary's Macken Speech & Debate Team met to dissect the candidates' strategies while reporters looked on. Meanwhile, some student videographers created a "Behind the Scenes" video to post on YouTube.
Lauren Khalifa, a senior majoring in Liberal & Civic Studies, was in Hagerty Lounge for the viewing party.
"Watching with other students was really cool, and I think it's great that SMC is trying to help us make informed decisions on Election Day," she said.
Most debate watchers were eager to share their opinions.
Camelia Taylor, a senior majoring in English and women's studies, called the debate "insightful and sometimes controversial, especially the comments on immigration and the economy." But she criticized both candidates for "nitpicking."
"We really need to focus on the issues that are important to California," she said.
Trevor Condon said Fiorina's defense of the Constitution and gun laws resonated with him, while sophomore Tim Harris said he was leaning toward Barbara Boxer because she "gave more insight into what she'd do."
And on top of that, he said, the debate "was great publicity for St Mary's. I called my parents in Minnesota so they could watch it."
Office of College Communications
Photos by Gabrielle Diaz '11