St. Joseph's Audience Takes Measure Of Candidates During Debate

With a little more than 40 days until Election Day, Victoria Maringola sat in the Hoffman Auditorium at the University of St. Joseph, filling out a voter registration form.

"I don't think I know enough to form an educated opinion," the 19-year-old sophomore said of who she planned to vote for in the presidential race.

That was why Maringola came to watch the first presidential debate Monday night — hoping for facts and nuanced policies among the tsunami of news the neck-and-neck race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has generated.

It was the undecided voters like Maringola that Clinton and Trump were chasing in the debate, the first of three scheduled. Not undecided voters in states like Connecticut, which is expected to go to Clinton and where a Republican hasn't won since 1988, but undecided voters in swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Undecided voters are generally the least informed and least educated, said Ken Long, a professor of history and political science at the university. And that can play to a candidate's debate strategy.

"[Candidates] can play relatively fast and loose with the facts and probably be OK," he said.

Much of the fact-checking during the debate came in real time on social media, from pundits, political operatives and journalists. Early on Trump mentioned a story with a Connecticut connection he had brought up throughout his campaign, a United Technologies Corp. subsidiary moving jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

Trump drew the biggest reaction of the night when he said he had a better temperament than Clinton.

"I have a very good temperament," he said, to laughter from the crowd watching the debate in West Hartford.

Jo Lopez, an alumni from Southington who came to watch, was a supporter of Bernie Sanders, Clinton's rival during the Democratic primary. But she said Trump's tactics during the debate were more about "fearmongering," while Clinton provided more concrete answers.

"As a woman, a preschool teacher and a Latina, I can't see myself voting for Trump," she said.

Devon Cruz from New Britain, who watched with Lopez, came in a Clinton supporter but said he hoped to hear more about policy from Trump. Instead, he said, there were "no details."

"It was an opportunity for him to show he could put it all together and he did the opposite," Cruz said.

Long said neither candidate committed a major gaffe, and both were "reasonably on target."

"There was no clear winner or loser," he said. Long said he expected Trump to focus more on Clinton's honesty than he did, and said Clinton's strength was shown when the discussion turned to foreign policy and she it would be dangerous to give Trump access to the country's nuclear arsenal.

Democrats and Republicans across the state held gatherings to watch the debate, which was expected to draw as many as 100 million viewers on television with millions more following along online. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Clinton supporter, was invited to attend the debate, which was held at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Christelle Bibo, a 19-year-old freshman, said she's also undecided. But not because she feels like she doesn't know enough about the race. It's because she doesn't agree with either of the candidates.

But most in the audience were Clinton supporters — not unusual on a college campus and particularly at the last women's college in Connecticut. Rhona Free, president of the university, said there has been a lot of emphasis about getting students registered to vote and educating them about the political process.

Free said some of the issues students care deeply about — student loan debt, fore example — were brought into the presidential debate by Sanders. Clinton got a smattering of applause from the students during the debate when she mentioned making college debt-free.

While the acrimonious slog of a campaign could very easily turn college students off to politics altogether, Free said she's seen the opposite effect — students see what they feel is dangerous rhetoric and feel like they have to get engaged.

"There's a lot of focus on social justice and social issues [on this campus] and most of our students have a sense they know which candidate is doing more for those communities," Free said.

Tom Condon, a longtime columnist at The Courant, joined Long, Carole Mulready, chairwoman of the Greater Hartford League of Women Voters, and Shyamala Raman, a professor of economics and international studies, for a panel discussion before a telecast of the debate.

"Listen up to what they say they're going to do because sometimes they do it," Condon told the crowd of mostly students.

Mulready, who has moderated debates before, said it wouldn't be in moderator Lester Holt's best interest to try to fact-check the candidates during the debate.

"It's the job of the moderator to listen carefully and critique what they're hearing," she said.

But at times Monday night Holt's reluctance to jump into the fray led to Clinton and Trump talk over one another. He eventually admitted that the debate had gotten behind schedule.

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