The last word

MU’s Democrats and Republicans will meet
in a last-minute debate tonight
Thursday, October 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

By any contemporary definition of politics, MU seniors Jonathon Coulson and Danny French are adversaries.

Coulson, a member of the College Democrats majoring in advertising, proudly displays “Vote Kerry” pins on his black school bag.

He has been for Kerry since the primaries, but there was never a chance his vote would leave the Democratic camp.

French’s parents told him that, as a 5-year-old, he used to watch the Sunday morning political television show “This Week with David Brinkley.”

In 1994, while in middle school, he realized he shared the values of the Republican Party. French, a political science major, has been a member of MU’s College Republicans since his freshman year.

While they possess different backgrounds and ideologies, Coulson and French share a passion for defending their values in front of crowds.

Tonight, as members of their group’s three-person panel, they will participate in the second, and final, campus debate of the political season called “Face Off 2004.”

With the debates over, celebrities wrapping up the endorsement season and absentee ballots already in the mail, there isn’t much vote-swaying to be done. But Coulson and French say there is still hope to inform their peers of the issues at stake Tuesday.

“The point of this debate is to showcase differences in philosophy,” French said.

French has paid attention to the candidates and looked at the issues for a long time, he said. In April, he participated in the first campus debate and, during the past few weeks, he has dedicated himself to preparing for tonight’s event. He said he thinks that, because he already has a good handle on Republican views, he needed to focus on researching the elements behind the philosophy.

“It was just a matter of getting facts and figures to back up our assertions,” French said.

Glenn Rehn, vice president of the College Democrats, said his group’s panelists prepared by playing devil’s advocate.

“We have one member of our group arguing the Republican mindset, because we know what the criticisms of President Bush are,” Rehn said. “We just want to be prepared for when they say, ‘So what’s your plan?’ ”

Coulson spent his preparation time focusing on two issues that did not get much mainstream coverage this election season — possible Supreme Court appointments and the environment.

“I met with Dr. Jan Weaver, director of the environmental studies program at MU, to get some facts about what’s happened to our environment in the last four years,” Coulson said.

Both debaters also reviewed Kerry’s and Bush’s Web sites to gauge the candidates’ official positions.

The Student Union Programming Board is sponsoring the debate, in conjunction with Kappa Delta sorority. Sarah Skaggs, a member of the board, said she thinks the debate offers students a unique opportunity to get last-minute information.

“While the debate will still be very professional, it’s geared towards students and this age group, so they’ll be able to hear their peers speak about the issues,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs and her colleagues have prepared the event for weeks, booking the room, publicizing the event and setting the ground rules. Both Republicans and Democrats were allowed to select one journalist to prepare questions for the debate. The Republicans chose MU journalism student Amy Blair, while the Democrats chose Missourian city editor Brian Wallstin.

MU senior Sarah Barfield, a political science major, will be the moderator and read the prepared questions. Barfield was chosen by the programming board and Kappa Delta. The sorority wanted to get involved in the debate because of the varied opinions about the candidates in their house.

“There is always discussion of politics in our house, so we thought this would be a great way to rally support for both parties,” said Ali Gabel, a member of both Kappa Delta and the College Republicans.

The members of Gabel’s sorority have been in charge of advertising the event and helping with the setup. Although some will arrive at the debate sporting Bush/Cheney stickers or Kerry/Edwards pins, Gabel said she has taken a more neutral stance in order to plan more effectively.

“My main goal is just to promote a discourse between people,” she said.

In a baseball game or at the Academy Awards, the winner is clear-cut. Tonight, the winner may be a little more ambiguous. Is it the group that sways more people to its side or the group that gets the loudest applause?

“It’s possible that one panel may do better by being better researched, but this debate is very similar to other debates,” French said. “Who wins is relative to how you think.”

Rehn said he doesn’t think the Democrats will be able to convince any die-hard Bush fans to join the Kerry contingent.

“I don’t expect them to agree with us, but I hope we can make them say, ‘I understand the point that they’re making,’” Rehn said.

If there needs to be a winner, the students hope it will be dialogue. Coulson doesn’t want the event to be about attacking the opposition.

“Our message needs to be one of hope, not hate,” Coulson said. “We may not change their minds as to who they’re voting for, but I hope we change the way they perceive the other side.”

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