Lively gatherings held on UC Merced campus to rally vote

10/16/2008 5:05 AM

10/16/2008 5:06 AM

It was a busy political day at the UC Merced campus Wednesday. At least for Democrats.

At a noon-time presidential rally, about 50 Obama supporters chanted near the quad.

President of Democrats at UC Merced, Nibal Halabi, yelled into a microphone:

"What do we have?"

"Hope!" the supporters responded.

"What do we want?"

"Change!"

"Who's gonna get it?"

"Obama!"

Republican students at the campus are having a tough time energizing their base.

Two, sometimes three, McCain supporters showed up to support their candidate in a dueling rally.

Mike Fincher, vice president of Republicans at UC Merced, boldly strode up to the Obama crowd with homemade McCain signs in each hand.

"No!" he shouted each time before the word "Obama" in the larger group's chant.

In the afternoon, students trekked from dorm to dorm in a last minute, nonpartisan push to register student voters.

"It went well," freshman Obama supporter Eriq Truitt said. "But the recurring theme was the people were already registered."

In an another nonpartisan event, the Associated Students of UC Merced came together with several university departments to host a presidential debate watch party at night.

State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, were present before the debate to answer questions about their work in Sacramento and D.C., respectively.

Denham also addressed the large turnout at the event.

"It is good to see all of you tonight and to see how engaged you are," he said. "It is not only good to see a Republican club on campus, but a Democratic one too."

More than 75 students attended the event, which also provided free pizza so students wouldn't miss part of the debate while they waited in dinner lines at the cafeteria.

After their opening remarks, Cardoza and Denham grabbed a slice of pizza and settled in next to each other to watch the debate.

Immediately after the debate, only Obama supporters were left in the room.

Truitt said his favorite question addressed in the debate was the final one, on the issue of education.

"That really hits home for me," he said. "Student loans are killing me right now."

Halabi was pleased with the debates on health care policy.

"It really put them out there and separated their ideas," he said. "That is where they showed strong differences."

Bryant Ziemba, president of the Republicans at UC Merced, watched the debate with friends at his home off campus.

He felt the best part of the debate centered on the discussion of dirty campaigning.

"Both of them advocated a fair campaign, but it hasn't been going that way," he said.

Ziemba said he was confident that Republican students were engaged, just not publicly.

"The Obama trend on college campuses has gone beyond politics," he said. "Now it involves fashion and fun and making friends."

That makes it harder for Republicans -- especially young freshmen trying to make friends -- to make their beliefs widely known, he said.

His group will be featuring a "Coming Out Party" on campus Thursday to tell students "It's OK to be a Republican."

Silently engaged or vocally involved, the students on the campus represent an ever-growing vocal bloc within Merced's electorate.

Student body president Yaasha Sabba estimated that voter registration efforts on campus have resulted in nearly 500 new or re-registered voters at the school.

At the final "dorm-busting" event just before the debate, 30 more students registered, Truitt said.

Sabba said he believes about 75 percent of the 2,718 students on campus are registered to vote.

The next hurdle will be getting those students to the polls. Sabba and others on campus have arranged for buses loaded with goodies and snacks to shuttle between the campus and student polling places on Election Day.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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