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In an appeal to young voters across America, eight Democratic presidential candidates slapped each other on the back and trading casual jabs during CNN’s America Rocks The Vote at Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean—the frontrunner in most current polls—said he knew he was the in the lead when he had to pick out buckshot from his rear-end, while Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., who aimed strong criticism at Dean’s gun control policies, said that when he hunts he always eats everything he shoots.
Outside the building, hundreds of supporters without tickets to the show waved signs and cheered for their candidate of choice in a frenzy that echoed for blocks in downtown Boston.
Eight of the nine Democatic hopefuls appeared at the event designed to appeal to youth voters, 18-25. Representative Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who spoke at Harvard Monday night, chose to skip the event to campaign in Iowa.
The most heated moment in an otherwise light debate came just minutes into the first segment when Dean struggled to defend his comments to the Des Moines Register Saturday that the he sought to appeal to southern voters with Confederate flags on their pick-up trucks.
“I don’t think you’re a bigot, but I think that is insensitive, and I think you ought to apologize to people for that,” Rev. Al Sharpton told Dean. “You appear to be too arrogant to say ‘I’m wrong.’”
Edwards attacked Dean’s comments from the perspective of a southerner who said he was tired of the stereotypes that poor whites were all Confederate sympathizers.
“I grew up in the south. I grew up with the very people that you’re talking about,” he said. “The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don’t drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks.”
This focus put Dean on the defensive for the first few minutes of a debate made famous in the past for asking a then-candidate Clinton whether he preferred boxers or briefs.
CNN host Anderson Cooper tried from the beginning to turn the event away from typical campaign cliches, quipping that on college campuses their speeches have been converted into drinking games.
“When you say your stock phrases, somebody downs a shot,” he jabbed.
In something resembling a game of political truth or dare, three of the candidates—Kerry, Dean and North Carolina Senator John Edwards—admitted to having smoked marijuana.
Though none of the candidates is an alum of the College—Harvard students were well-represented at the event, as pre-selected questioners, pages and protesters outside.
Rami Sarafa ’07, an Arab-American Harvard student grilled Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman on his vote in favor of the PATRIOT Act.
“If you become president, how do you plan to protect the civil liberties of Arab-Americans?” he asked.
In a response that drew applause, Lieberman cited the recent arrest of almost 800 immigrants and foreign nationals as an “un-American” abuse of the government’s power. The best thing about the PATRIOT Act, Lieberman, said, was that Congress had installed a sunset clause.
Lara Setrakian ’03 took a different tone with her 15 seconds.
“What’s the first thought that would go through your head when you wake up in the White House?” she asked the group.
With the flair that makes him popular in debates, if not the polls, Sharpton shot back, “I would make sure Bush has all of his stuff out.... I’d change the locks so that all his crowd will stay out.”
The evening also featured 30-second videos, produced by the candidates, which introduced each of them to a backdrops of rock and rap music.
Wesley K. Clark’s spot touted the retired general’s support for affirmative action, his belief in war as a last resort, and predictions about the fate of the popular band Outkast.
“I don’t care what other candidates say,” Clark was shown telling young voters in a coffee-shop, “I don’t think Outkast is breaking up.”
Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, appeared on Rock the Vote last night despite declining an invitation to appear on MSNBC’s Hardball, to be taped at Harvard.
A Kucinich spokesperson said at the time that the candidate had declined because the show is “quite biased in the direction of right-wing and corporate interests.”
Kucinich refined his stance tonight, after appearing on Rock the Vote.
“I have fundamental disagreements with Mr. Matthews. I don’t want to disparage him,” he said. “I can choose which shows to appear on and I chose not to appear on his.”
Manicuring the Masses
At the immaculately-managed event, even the street supporters looked staged. Coordination was key—five large black vans drove up just before 7 p.m., followed by the chartered-Edwards campaign bus and a gaggle of police officers. The candidates ran a gantlet of college students, campaign signs and democrats of all colors including several Lyndon La Rouche supporters.
Brittani S. Head ’06, leader of Harvard Students for Edwards, brought four other members to stand in a crowd of Edwards supports from other local colleges.
“It’s hard for a southern candidate in New England,” she said.
Despite her political affiliation, Head gave credit to the small group of Bush supporters who ran up and down the lines of the protest.
“The Bush people have a lot of guts and balls,” she said.
Boston College Bush supporter Alex Fowler said he came with students from Boston University (BU) and MIT to make the Republican presence felt at the overwhelmingly Democratic event.
The presence of a small but vocal Republican group surprised Dan Hoffer, a junior at BU who runs Students for Kerry.
“I didn’t expect Bush people to show up,” he said.
The organizers of the event screened out Republican participants, according to Mumu Xu ’07, who volunteered as a page in the Rock the Vote pressroom.
“Only Independents and Democrats are allowed to work here. They said they will find out if you’re a Republican and kick you out,” she said.
—Staff writer Jonathan P. Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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