Students who gathered at O’Donovan Hall Wednesday night for a debate-watch party witnessed a dramatic change as the typical cafeteria scene was transformed by linen table cloths, elegant decorations, gourmet food and tuxedo-clad caterers waiting to remove empty plates while students waited in anticipation for the start of the third and final presidential debate.

This change was initiated by Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson after the dining hall was closed to students for several days following the norovirus outbreak on campus.

Not only had the decor changed, but students were joined by a group of guests not typically seen in the dining hall, as a panel of distinguished speakers also spoke, focusing on the importance of student voters in the upcoming election.

This panel included Amar Bakshi, a contributor to The Washington Post and Newsweek, Brendan Daly, press secretary for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Lionel Johnson, senior vice president of government affairs for Stanford Financial Group, Michael O’Hanlon, director of the Opportunity ’08 initiative at the Brookings Institute, and Rachel Hoff, who was named National Young Republican Woman of the Year in 2006 by the Young Republican National Federation for her efforts to encourage youth involvement in politics.

The event, which was sponsored by GUSA, College Democrats, College Republicans, NAACP and Vineyard Vines, who outfitted the panelists with ties from their “Election Collection,” had been in the works since the summer, according to JD Allman (COL ’09), GUSA director of student affairs.

“The debate watch was something that we thought we could do, but the panel was something new,” Allman said. “For the panel, we wanted to bring in different perspectives and go beyond the campaign, to try to bring in a diverse group-government relations, political groups, economic think tanks.”

GUSA president Pat Dowd (SFS ’09) moderated the panel, opening up the discussion by asking each panelist what most surprised them about this year’s election.

Hoff noted the unprecedented significance of the youth vote.

“From a Republican perspective, the youth vote has been misrepresented as a factor for Barack Obama,” she said. “But there are lots of very excited young people for McCain.”

O’Hanlon also said he believes this has been a campaign of surprises.

“Obama is surprise number one; you are surprise number two, in the sense of the enthusiasm of the younger voters in this election, and Palin is surprise number three,” O’Hanlon said. “And the way that the issues have come and gone in this election to me is quite unusual. The Iraq debate dominated so much in this election a year ago; now it’s maybe issue seven or eight.”

Each of the panelists stressed the importance of taking part by voting in this critical election. “Here, and everywhere in the country, young people really do have an opportunity in this election,” Johnson said. “Barack Obama and John McCain offer two very different choices, at a time in our history where this fork in the road – this election – is very important.”

The floor was opened to student questions for 15 minutes at the end of the panel. Students asked a range of questions, including one from Sean Rosenthal (COL ’12) on the honesty of the two candidates that seemed to stump the panelists.

After a long pause, Hoff finally said it is somewhat of a relative question.

“I think that all we can ask is for candidates to be real to the situation they’re in,” she said.

During the presidential debate itself, cheers and jeers erupted from different parts of the cafeteria as Obama and McCain battled while Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated.

“Seeing the debate in a public setting, you can gauge others’ reactions,” Doria Killian (MSB ’11) said. “Watching it alone is not as exciting. And I don’t think it’s informative, either – I like to be discussing it with people as it goes.”

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