An hour before Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama squared off on national television on Oct. 3, the pre-presidential-debate debate got under way at Carroll Community College, with one student speculating out loud, "I wonder when the shoe-throwing is going to start?"
Not to worry — no shoes, rotten tomatoes, spitballs, mean-spirited invectives or anything else went airborne.
In fact, the hour-long debate, which featured a seven-member panel representing the county Republican and Democratic central committees, the Carroll County League of Women Voters, the Libertarian Party and We, The People — a local offshoot of the Tea Party movement — was cordial.
If nothing else, the debate reminded the couple dozen CCC students in attendance that democracy can be a messy business, filled with ideas and ideals.
When asked by moderator Patricia Ryan, the director of the Carroll County Mediation Center, what issues they would like to see in the real presidential debate — which the group watched on a wide-screen TV immediately after the local debate — the seven panelists gave responses that were all over the place and then some.
Now and then, a few of them were actually in agreement — sometimes seemingly to their own surprise.
But there was one issue on which all the panelists agreed: that the future really is in the hands of today's college and university students, and that they can start taking control of that future by voting next month.
Neil Dhingra, assistant professor of history at Carroll Community College, who organized the pre-debate debate, said that was what the evening was all about: to demonstrate that "young people really do have a 'stake' in society."
And after listening to the ideas and then watching the live debate, Dhingra hoped the students "will feel galvanized to vote."
The students themselves expressed that much of the panel's discourse was a bit too vague and general — as most of the panelists themselves predicted the presidential debate itself would be.
Many of the students were also eager to participate, and some were clearly disappointed that only in the final 10 minutes was the floor opened to questions.
Even so, throughout the hour, the small but enthusiastic audience registered agreement or disagreement at various points, with either hearty applause or good-natured cat calls.
Before the debate got under way, Thomas Henson, a second-year CCC student who lives in Westminster, said he doubted that anyone on the panel was going to change his mind ... or his vote.
"I've been a Libertarian since I was 15," Henson said. "I came here to meet some of the local Libertarian candidates in person. I also wanted to see what the representatives of the two mainstream parties have to say, and to see if anything has changed, though I doubt it has.
"I'm just disgruntled with the way politics have gone and how we've been kind of gerrymandered into a two-party system," Henson added.
Matthew Rauscher, 21, of Westminster, said he came to the debate at the recommendation of one of his professors at CCC.
"I'm here with an open mind," Rauscher said. "I'm here to observe and I want to see what the different parties have to say for themselves."
Megan, a second-year CCC student from Westminster who chose not to give her last name, acknowledged she came for extra credit in her psychology class, even though she's already decided to vote for Obama.
"But I do hope to learn what the two candidates are going to do about the economy and health care and how they're going to make a better future for America," she said.