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Anticipating Bill Clinton's Visit, UConn Students React to Presidential Debate

Many students were excited to see the candidates hash out issues relevant to their lives on campus, like gun control, marijuana legalization, and racial equality.

Candidates faced off Tuesday night in the first of the Democratic primary debates, and several groups of students at the University of Connecticut gathered for watching parties across campus. 

As the Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage on the television display in the basement of the Hillel at the University of Connecticut, the room was quiet. A group of about 20 students, many working on homework assignments and term papers, followed along.

The debate started. Students cheered for their candidates, but rarely did anyone speak over the TV. Most eyes were affixed to the screen in a concentrated silence. It was only during the commercial breaks that an excited chatter began. Most of the students at the Hillel were Bernie Sanders supporters.

Across campus, another party organized by the UConn College Democrats had a broader mix of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Sanders enthusiasts.

Megan Handau, a Clinton supporter who helped organize the second watching party, said Hillary’s views stand apart from Bill Clinton’s, who will be speaking on campus this coming Thursday when he accepts a human rights award from the school.

"They’re separate in my view, probably because I am 18… and with their demeanors, they’re completely different. I think the way they approach problems is completely different,” Handau said.

Handau is still excited for Bill Clinton to come, because she thinks it will motivate other students to get involved politically.

“I think college students outside of social issues, and outside of student loans, tend to be kind of politically apathetic, so having any attention drawn is a good thing,” Handau said.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Haddiyyah Ali (right), crowned homecoming queen at the school's pageant just as the debate started, watches the candidates on TV with her friends Tuesday night.

UConn student Haddiyyah Ali was looking forward to the candidates speaking about issues that were important to her as a black Muslim student, and she said she isn’t too excited for Bill Clinton’s visit to campus.

“If I had tickets to see him, I would ask him why he thinks it’s appropriate to tote our culture around and talk about he was the 'first black president,' and he’s so down, and he put an entire generation of black men in jail, and has failed to ever fully acknowledge that,” Ali said.

For Ali, finding a candidate to support in the upcoming primary wasn’t a matter of simple identity politics. Throughout the debate, she criticized the times Clinton touted the fact she’d be the first female president as a reason to vote for her. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Jesus Morales-Sanchez is a sophomore chemical engineering major and a Bernie Sanders supporter.

"My family, they’re all pretty much unaware that Bernie Sanders exists."<br><em>Jesus Morales-Sanchez</em>

“[Hillary Clinton] is a very white feminist that's a certain privileged group that I simply don’t identify with, and so even though Bernie Sanders is like a super really old white guy, he still gets it, and he still cares about the issues,” Ali said. 

Many students at the viewing parties were excited to see the candidates during the debate hash out issues that were relevant to their lives on campus -- gun control, marijuana legalization, and racial equality, for instance.

UConn student Jesus Morales-Sanchez, a Sanders supporter, said one of Sanders's main challenges will be garnering support in the Latino community. 

“I’m of Mexican descent. My family, they’re all pretty much unaware that Bernie Sanders exists. If they know about them, it’s because I happen to mention him or I happen to bring up politics while we’re sitting at the [dinner] table,” Morales-Sanchez said.

Kevin Alvarez, a UConn senior, is a Joe Biden supporter. He said he’ll support Clinton if Biden doesn’t run, and he doesn’t think Sanders’s mantra as a socialist will garner enough support in the general election.

“I think he views socialism in a way that many Americans don't -- and that I don’t even see as what socialism really is. And I think it damages his campaign both amongst Democrats, because while there is a liberal wing to the Democratic party, there is a lot of moderates, and there’s a lot of conservative Democrats still in existence,” Alvarez said.  

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Daniel Byrd (left) co-founder of UConn Students For Bernie Sanders, follows debate reactions on Twitter.

The debate ended with laughter in the apartment where Ali was watching with her friends. They were following Twitter reactions to candidate Jim Webb’s ominous statement about an enemy soldier in Vietnam that “was no longer around to talk to.”

Bennett Cognato, co-founder of UConn Students for Bernie Sanders, said there was another tweet that encapsulated the spirit of the debate.

“I saw someone tweet before -- and I totally agree -- that I think the biggest winner of the Democratic debate was the Democratic Party,” Cognato said. “I think it was really a great showing.”

Cognato said he hopes the Democratic National Committee will add more debates to the schedule. Right now, the next one is scheduled for November 14. The next Republican presidential debate will take place on Oct. 28. 

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