Students at West Chester University gather to view the presidential debate

Kristina Howard, 21, of Wynnewood, a senior at West Chester, watches the debate with others. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kristina Howard, 21, of Wynnewood, a senior at West Chester, watches the debate with others. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 05, 2012

As Jim Lehrer told the nation that the first presidential debate's live audience would refrain from cheering, booing, and hissing, a theater full of college students in a critical swing county erupted in laughter - and hisses.

Hundreds of miles from the debate at the University of Denver, more than 200 students gathered at West Chester University's Sykes Student Union on Wednesday night to watch it on a giant screen, discuss their postdebate thoughts, and participate in a "Debate Watch" officially recognized by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Kevin W. Dean, director of the Honors College, said the student body leans liberal but has a "definite conservative element."

That assessment was supported by the crowd response from the start: cheers and applause for President Obama that continued even as Mitt Romney was introduced, but with audible boos and jeers from a small percentage of the crowd.

"I'm feeling a lot of Obama support from the student body," said freshman Carlena Watson of Downingtown, who is registered an an independent and who said she remained undecided. "There were a lot of cheers for Obama, and not so much for Romney. Maybe Romney supporters are quieter."

One of those Obama supporters, senior Kristina Howard of Wynnewood, said that this was the first debate she had watched and that the experience was positive enough to keep her coming back.

"You get more feedback with a group," she said. "It's exciting. It's nice to see a lot of people here to participate and be a part of things."

Watson, Howard, and freshman Claudia Green of Downingtown all said they liked watching the debate with a large group of students.

Green and Watson are registered as independents and said they were still undecided, though Green was leaning toward Romney. Howard, a registered Democrat, favors Obama.

But she said her vote could be changed if Romney switched positions on health care and college tuitions. Watson and Green said they were more interested in the candidates' positions on tax cuts.

Before the debate, students filled out a survey asking for demographic information, including their registered affiliations and voting records, as well as their debate expectations. They were also asked to identify the issues they hoped to see addressed.

The screen was turned off immediately after the debate to prevent pundit influence on students. They filled out a postdebate survey that asked whether their impressions of the candidates had changed, and how well the issues they were interested in were addressed. The results were not immediately available.

Chester County is considered a crucial swing county in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan held a rally in West Chester in August. The vast majority of students in Chester County are believed to be registered to vote.


Contact Jonathan Lai at 215-854-5151, jlai@philly.com,

or follow on Twitter @elaijuh.

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