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With the heated 2004 presidential election going down to the wire, there's plenty of political debate going on in schools, even among people who aren't old enough to vote.

Hamburg High School is voting today in a mock presidential election spearheaded by Chris Dudek's Participation in Government classes. A debate between students standing in for President Bush, Sen. John Kerry and independent candidate Ralph Nader was held after school Tuesday. "It's the first time we've done a mock election," Dudek said. Students were divided at random into Kerry, Bush or Nader supporters and had to raise money to put up campaign advertising. "They have to pay for all the advertising they do," he said. "The idea is how important funds can be in a campaign, that's the finance part of the campaigning."

Students also did "polls weekly to see if their advertising was working," Dudek said. Fund-raisers included a Frisbee golf tournament, a chili cookoff and recycling efforts to pick up bottles and cans around town. Senior Erin Kirchmyer calls the effort "not only a great way for all the students to learn about the individual candidates, but (it) is also preparing the seniors and others involved in ways of planning, fundraising and getting ready for life beyond high school. We hope that this educational project gets the youth involved in the campaign and that they will be excited when the time comes for their vote to count."

The money raised will go to Buffalo Public School 80.

Nichols School is holding its own mock presidential election for students, and Democratic Buffalo Mayor Masiello and Republican Erie County Legislator Elise M. Cusack visited Nichols where students in an Advanced Placement class questioned them about their support for Kerry or Bush.

In a schoolwide poll at City Honors, Kerry won in a landslide, followed by Nader, with Bush in third place with 18 percent. Some teachers and students were actively involved with the Kerry campaign outside school. "For the most part, City Honors is a pretty liberal place," says Kerry supporter and City Honors sophomore Emily de Beer.

Many teachers at City Honors have been leading class discussions on the current political situation, with most the students participating.

City Honors and all Buffalo high schools held assemblies sponsored by Rap Up the Vote, a non-partisan voter registration drive run by Hipnotic Entertainment Inc. and Champions of Destiny.

Organizer Dianna Henderson said the assemblies, which included original rap music, stressed the importance of voting. "We've addressed over 6,000 students," she said. "We believe that our young people should be heard, this is the only way we can ensure their constructive participation in their immediate future." A Rap Up the Vote concert will be held Friday at 7 at HSBC Arena featuring Fat Joe and the Terror Squad, Lil Flip, Akon, Twista, MASE and Lloyd. Tickets are $55, $45 and $35.

Students at area high schools have noticed varying levels of interest in the campaign. "Surprisingly, people at my school actually are informed of the issues going on today," said Shawn Bean, 17, of St. Francis High School. "They are by no means glued to CNN, but they watch enough news shows to be able to form some sense of an opinion worth hearing."

"I've seen plenty of my classmates talking about the issues. Everybody has a contrasting opinion," said Matthew Kindley, 16, also of St. Francis.

"People do discuss the election which is obviously the big issue these days. It happens more in the locker room than the cafeteria, though, I would say," said Lisa Knipps, 17, of Hamburg High.

"There are heated political arguments at school everywhere -- in the dining hall, in the (arts center) lobby, in classrooms ...," said Lexie Hare, 16, of Nichols.

Nichols junior Anne Morrow reports that her history teacher assigned an extra-credit one page paper about whether or not students liked the presidential debates (they could pick any debate).

She was a witness to a heated debate among 10 freshman during a painting class about the election. "I thought it was really interesting to hear a bunch of relatively informed 14-year-olds discuss their ideas."

At Williamsville East, Andy Herr, 16, reports: "There are heated discussions everywhere; everyone's arguing. I just hope people make the right choice."

NeXt correspondents Lizz Schumer, Natalie Franczyk, Meg Healy and Anne Morrow contributed to this story.

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