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Although many on campus were too busy with bulkpack readings or midterm preparations to care, the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential ticket came head to head last night in a primary debate.

Ongoing conflict in Iraq, health care, education and the environment emerged as the central issues in candidate discourse.

Praising Howard Dean's performance, Penn College Democrat Issues Director Dan De Rosa said that one interesting aspect of the debate was the treatment of Wesley Clark.

"One thing I was surprised at was how hard the candidates came out against Clark," De Rosa said.

Criticized for a wavering stance on the war in Iraq, Clark met rebuke from both his fellow contenders and the CNN debate moderators.

"If you could square that circle for us," CNN moderator Candy Crowley said to Clark, questioning his current stance against the Iraqi conflict in light of his past support of the Bush administration's defense team.

Also under fire, John Edwards was questioned on his repeated integration of his personal background with discussions of his campaign platform.

"Why should any voter care any bit?" CNN moderator Jeff Greenfield said to Edwards, referring to this tendency.

Focusing his response on education and home ownership, Edwards stressed the importance of middle-class voters in the upcoming election.

Also abundant throughout the debate was criticism of both President George W. Bush and the Republican party.

"This time the person with the most votes is going to win," Dean said.

Social program budget cuts and tax breaks were also popular platforms used to make jabs against Republican politics.

"If you want to live like a Republican, you've got to vote for the Democrats," Dick Gephardt said, criticizing the Republican tax programs.

Placing the blame on not only Republicans, but men in general, Carol Moseley Braun said, "The men have ruined it, our country is a mess."

Democratic optimism was another focal point of the debate, as both candidates and voters look toward the future of the campaign trail.

"The question is not whether we're going to beat George Bush," Dean said. It's "what kind of president you want."

For the second half of the two-hour debate, candidates shed their suit jackets and opened themselves to audience questioning.

This format was a first for the primary campaign trail and it elicited questions on topics ranging from Native American tribal rights to prescription drug benefits.

Audience members and citizens "often times have a very different perspective... on real issues that ought to be covered," De Rosa said.

While their levels of interest in the debates varied, many other students did not place priority on watching last night's event.

"I didn't know about it... and I had stuff to do," Wharton freshman Steve Wang said.

Citing school work as his reason for not watching, College sophomore Joe Dela Pena still expressed awareness of the upcoming primaries.

"Of course I'm interested," he said.

Last night's debate, which was broadcast from Phoenix, was the third in a series of six scheduled this fall. The next will be held in Detroit on Oct. 26.

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