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October 10, 2012

Issues real, but not candidates, at Rose-Hulman mock debate

TERRE HAUTE — Some Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology students tackled such tough issues as abortion, immigration, gay marriage and Medicare during a mock presidential debate Tuesday.

Students James Popenhagen and Brian Weiner tag-teamed as President Barack Obama, while student Colin Ringwood took on the role of Mitt Romney.

Students Mark Wlodarski and Audrey Niverson served as “media” who took turns asking questions.

The “candidates” stood at podiums and wore suits and ties, while their fellow classmates sat in the audience. They provided opening and closing statements.

“This is truly a monumental election year. A lot of things have gone wrong over the past four years under President Obama,” said Ringwood (as Romney).  

Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other entitlement programs “have been running rampant,” he said, and reforms that need to occur “have largely failed” under the president.

Weiner (as Obama) said that American citizens are “entitled to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness … and the security of knowing there is a government there to  support you.”

Citizens should know that when they retire, there will be funding to help support them; when they are ill, they will receive the care they need; and when their children grow up, the environment will be cleaner, said Popenhagen (as Obama), in closing comments.

Other issues tackled included education, the housing crisis, energy policy and entitlement programs.

The mock debate is one of the assignments for the students’ American Politics and Government class, taught by Terrence Casey, professor of political science. Students working in teams are staging four debates, and Tuesday’s focused on social policy issues.

Teams of students researched the candidates’ positions and also watched how they debated last week and in other forums.

Students have to do a lot of research on the campaigns and the candidates’ positions on issues, Casey said. The assignment also “gives them some sense of what it’s like to participate in something like this.”

The debates might look easy to the public, but after students are done with their assignment, they realize the challenges the candidates face as they debate for 90 minutes in front of a live TV audience.

On Tuesday, the candidates’ “views” offered no surprises. The “Obamas” supported gay marriage, while “Romney” did not. On abortion, “Obama” favored a woman’s right to choose, while “Romney” hoped for an opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Ringwood (Romney) went so far as to tell the college crowd that funding for college financial aid needs to be cut. Too many students who can afford to pay, or whose families can afford to pay, look to the government to help cover the costs, he said. “That’s something we need to cut down on,” he said.

There were no boos from the college crowd.

After the 45-minute debate concluded, Casey praised students for a “good, substantive debate” and those representing media for good follow-up questions.

The candidates did a good job laying out specifics, although they needed to provide the bigger picture so people understand how  issues affect them personally, Casey said.

He also thought they didn’t go after their opponent’s weaknesses enough. “You’re being too nice to each other,” he said. “You need to be a little more sort of an attack dog on some of these things.”

Popenhagen and Weiner could have “gone after” Ringwood on Medicare, while Ringwood could have grilled his opponents on the Affordable Care Act — the Obama health care plan — and how it’s being funded.

After the debate, Weiner said that he has learned a lot about the platforms of both candidates, and how hard it is to go through the debate process even for 45 minutes.

“It’s changed my point of view for just how much time, effort and energy that gets put into these campaigns by both candidates,” he said.

Ringwood said he went into the class supporting Obama, but after all the research he’s done, “now I’m solidly in the middle and not really sure yet” how he will vote in November.

He said he’s been going back and forth the past few weeks. He now watches more news channels for more perspective on the issues.

“It’s helped me kind of wash away some of the bias I used to have,” Ringwood said. He now has a better understanding of where Republicans are coming from in some of the policy positions they take.

As far as the experience of portraying Romney, he said. “I love this kind of stuff. I love being up on stage and portraying someone else.” During high school, Ringwood performed in plays.

As far as the debate last week between Obama and Romney, Ringwood expected the president to be stellar and Romney to be “OK.”

After it was over, “that kind of flipped all around,” he said. Seeing Obama falter made him think, “Maybe he’s not this perfect guy we all thought he was at one point.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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