Oxon Hill, Md. - The presidential candidates addressed American voters in a town hall setting Tuesday night, but another audience was tuning in: nearly 70 students from Pawcatuck Middle School.
Although they won't be able to vote for several years, the social studies students gathered in an Oxon Hill hotel on Tuesday evening and waited in anticipation for the candidates to begin speaking.
Minutes before the debate began, the class received a phone call from candidate for U.S. Senate and current U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.
"People don't expect young people to be advocating for a cause or working for a candidate," said Murphy, who was himself a member of a Young Democrats group in his high school. "Thank you for your interest and (I) encourage you to stay interested in public service."
The students, in the area as part of a class field trip to Washington, weren't able to participate in their usual online chat due to technology issues. Still, many pulled out their cellphones to follow FactCheck.org and PolitiFact on Twitter. Others used an application called Mood Meter to track the perceived moods of the candidates.
Amid the sounds of candy wrappers and crunching chips, some students whispered to each other about the finer points of Mitt Romney's and Barack Obama's proposed tax policies.
"Romney is changing his views on that. He started out cutting taxes for the higher classes and now he's for cutting taxes for everyone," blonde eighth-grader Cameron Dreher said. "… It will make the swing states lean more towards him."
Dreher's classmate, Josh Abston, liked Romney's five-point plan but took issue with his decision to cut taxes for the upper classes.
"It's going to get us in more debt, in my opinion," Abston said.
If these middle school students sound surprisingly politically aware, it's likely due to the government and politics unit they recently completed in their U.S. history class. Their teacher, Dan Agins, assigned each student to take a Pew Research Center quiz to assess his or her political leanings. Students also participated in a mock election and created a profile on Facebook for a fake politician.
"Mr. Agins made (the first debate) really fun," explained Abston, who watched the last presidential debate with 20 of his classmates. "We were joking but being serious. It was great."
Dreher said she watched the first debate to earn extra credit, but was intrigued and watched the vice presidential debate on her own. She described the discussion between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as "more kid-friendly, easier to understand."