OAKLAND — Hundreds of students crammed into the Bishop O'Dowd High School auditorium Monday. When the seats filled up, they lined the stairwell or stood in the doorway. With just eight days to go before the presidential election, the school held a town hall-style debate between representatives of the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns. Not only was attendance optional, but the event was organized by an O'Dowd sophomore, 15-year-old Julia Owens. All of the questions were written by students.
"There's a lot of seniors voting this year, and there's been a lot of confusion about what the candidates stand for," Owens explained, teetering slightly on her high-heeled shoes, minutes before the event began.
Owens, an Obama supporter, said she's very nervous about the election — and that she's not the only one with a keen interest in the outcome.
"It seems like a big thing," she said. "This one is going to be historical, no matter which side wins."
Like other schools across the Bay Area, the Catholic high school campus has been abuzz with presidential politics since last school year, in part because of the unusually long and heated primary race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, students said. Although most of the teenagers are too young to vote, some are volunteering at the polls or campaigning — or promoting their favorite candidates with T-shirts and buttons.
"I think people feel like this affects them," said Rachel Sklar, 16, a former McCain supporter who isn't impressed with either candidate at the moment. "People are seeing how the policies of presidents do affect the economy and our social lives."
On Monday, the debaters — Oakland City Attorney John Russo, for the Obama campaign, and John den Dulk, Berkeley's Republican party chairman, for McCain — fielded detailed questions about health care, the economy, higher education, tax policy, environmental problems, gay rights, abortion and foreign policy.
One student asked why McCain was in favor of including Georgia, a former republic of the Soviet Union, in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance of 26 countries from North America and Europe. "Why is defending Georgia in the national interest of the United States?" the question read.
The debaters weren't always polite to each other. Jon Thorpe, a history teacher who moderated the event, had to remind the audience once or twice to refrain from emotional reactions. But for the most part, students listened quietly, taking in the policy arguments and historical context that the speakers sometimes provided.
Bonnie Sussman has taught government and politics at Bishop O'Dowd High School since 1972, and she said she has rarely seen so much energy around a presidential campaign, or knowledge about the issues. She teaches a before-school government and politics class that starts at 7:20 a.m., and 60 students signed up for the class within days, she said. They're all traveling to the inauguration.
Sussman thinks the war in Iraq got students' attention, as did Obama's call for changing Washington politics.
"His reference to change and that they can actually do something has touched a chord with them, and they're in the age group of 18- to 24-year-olds that traditionally don't vote, that don't get involved in politics," she said.
Kate Drew, a 16-year-old policy wonk who describes herself as "a lightweight Obama supporter," said most of her peers don't talk politics for hours each day, like she does, or get their news from The Economist. Still, she said, she was encouraged that so many people turned out to the debate, and she hoped the event would spark more nuanced thinking about the two major political parties, and about the future of the country.
"We're on the breaking point of something, and I don't think anyone knows what that will truly be," Drew said.