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Schools as Soapbox: Candidates Woo Student Audiences

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It's February of 1988 and that means most high-school students in New Hampshire can look forward to coming to school and meeting someone who is running for President--if they haven't met a candidate already.

Schools in New Hampshire are "just crawling with them, it's like mosquitos in June," said Susan Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

"This year's candidates are definitely being seen more in schools," said Alex P. Evans, a political consultant who is executive vice president of Cambridge Survey Research. "They are trying to appeal to baby boomers who think education is an important issue, plus there are so many big problems in education today."

"The kids are pretty much props, and it does make good TV," he said. "But I believe there is a sincere concern about education, especially among the Democrats. You get the impression that they are not looking for voters, because the kids aren't old enough to vote. But the visits themselves bring a certain saliency to the issue."

Some candidates go out of their way to speak to young people. A spokesman for Jesse Jackson said he receives about 500 invitations a week to speak at schools, and tries to schedule three to five such stops every week.

"Education is a priority issue for Mr. Jackson," added the spokesman.

Action in Iowa

Representatives for each of the other 1988 Presidential hopefuls--both Republican and Democrat--make similar pronouncements. And all claim be receiving dozens of invitations from schools each week.

For the past several weeks, the activity has been intense in Iowa, as candidates of both parties jousted for position in this week's party caucuses. Bill Sherman, president of the Iowa Education Association, said educators there had made a special effort to get involved in the election as part of U.S. '88, a project funded by the Roosevelt Foundation to encourage student political activity.

Robert C. Brooks, principal of Valley High School in Des Moines, said the school had definitely been a favored forum for this year's candidates--especially Vice President George Bush.

During a Jan. 22 visit, Mr. Bush was grilled aggressively by Valley High students, many of whom admitted to being campaign volunteers for Representative Jack F. Kemp of New York.

Mr. Bush was criticized for ripping up an abortion pamphlet a student had quoted when questioning the Vice President about his views.

Despite the controversy, a spokesman for Mr. Bush said he would continue to appear as often as possible in schools, especially as he heads South to prepare for the "Super Tuesday" primaries in March.

'Real Candidate or Nothing'

Many candidates have sent surrogates into schools, but at least one teacher, William F. Benson of Manchester Memorial High School in Manchester, N.H., would only settle for the real thing.

"Governor Dukakis asked if he could send his mother," Mr. Benson said. "But we told all of them, it had to be the real candidate or nothing."

No one at Manchester Memorial can remember how often the school has played host to political contenders, but they agree it has earned a bit of a reputation over the years.

Mr. Benson, who invited the 1984 Presidential candidates in, said that so far he has welcomed six of the 1988 crop. He expects all to show their faces before the state's closely watched Feb. 16 primary. The contenders are not just seeking press opportunities, he said. They all pass around sheets to sign up volunteers.

Some candidates have asked for the history teacher's support in encouraging the young people to help. But Mr. Benson said, "It's just like with adults, the kids will only volunteer for those they like."

So far, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has drawn in about 20 volunteers, the most of any candidate. Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. did not win any over, Mr. Benson said.

"Haig was very antagonizing," he explained." He accused me of planting difficult questions among the kids. But the kids come up with their own questions, and I tell them, 'If a candidate can't answer them, there's something wrong."'

Most See 'Value' in Visits

Dover High School in Dover, N.H., has also been a common campaign stop for years. Principal Richard Rothenberg said the visits can often be disruptive, especially because of the press entourage. But the effort is worth it, he added, if it offers lessons about the American political process.

"Many candidates don't even talk about education," Mr. Rothenberg said. "They often talk to the kids about careers and their future."

In Iowa, one Sioux City school-board member complained about media coverage of a Jesse Jackson speech at a high school, saying the candidates were using the schools to advance their own causes and that the educational value of the visits had been lost. But Mr. Sherman of the IEA said, "I think it is fairly obvious why the candidates are using the schools, but as long as we make sure a cross-section of views is represented, the value [of the visits] is there."

None of the school officials said security was a problem, with the exception of Dover High's experience with Lyndon LaRouche. For his Dover visit, the controversial political figure, who is campaigning for the Presidency as a Democrat, asked that an escape route out of the building be prepared. "But Mr. LaRouche is a little weird," Mr. Rothenberg said.

Despite such quirks, school officials say their communities relish their prominent electoral role--at least in part because they know it is fleeting. "It's a unique opportunity for all involved," said Ms. Ryan in New Hampshire. "But I think here, at least some people will be happy when all the fuss is all over."

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