Drew Murray was working hard yesterday to bring in the votes -- and the money.
The Centreville High School senior, one of six candidates in the school's mock presidential race, shook hands with classmates in the school library and set out to win the support of special interest groups that control the cash.
Murray told a classmate who opposes abortion rights that he doesn't support an outright ban on abortions but that there should be a law requiring pregnant teenagers seeking an abortion to get their parents' approval. His campaign promised a gun-safety group that he would bar open carrying of firearms. And all the while, his supporters handed out free cups of Mountain Dew, a nod to one of his slogans, "Mountain Drew."
Murray and his running mate, Ryan Sills, said the weeks-long campaign at Centreville -- which will end when seniors cast their votes Nov. 18 and 19 -- is causing them to think more critically than ever about controversial issues such as gay marriage, tax reform and the war in Iraq. Although they followed the real presidential race before, now they are paying much closer attention to the candidates, the politics and their own futures, they said.
"It's making us look ahead to what we're going to do about taxes, about the war, about the national debt." said Sills, 18. "I think we're getting a sense of all the things a candidate has to consider when making a decision."
As the race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry heads into the final stretch, schools across the region are staging mock elections and debates to involve even the youngest students more personally in democracy, the key issues of the day, and the neck-and-neck presidential race.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County, students will cast votes for Bush or Kerry in a mock election to be held today and tomorrow. On Oct. 28, students at Loudoun County's Potowmack Elementary School will head to the polls in their school and will leave with an "I Voted Today" sticker.
Centreville government teacher Terri Ritchey, who first launched her school's elections two years ago to encourage her students to become well-informed voters, now or when their turn comes, said the young campaigners have learned lessons from Howard Dean's infamous scream and Bush's facial expressions during his first debate. Several students said they are reading newspapers more often and visiting Internet news sites.
"You can't get this kind of excitement if you're just talking about it," Ritchey said. "They really get into it. They're talking about it in lunch. They're talking about it in English class."
As in real life, the high school elections also can bring their share of scandals and heartache. This year, one campaign was busted after taking school paper for a banner without approval. One year, a candidate was disqualified when his supporters showed a television "commercial" that teachers had decided was inappropriate. And sometimes "attack ads" and editorials make for hurt feelings.
Ritchey said even the mistakes and misery are part of the effort to simulate real life. Students are assigned the roles of pollsters and speechwriters as well as journalists who produce a series of newspapers. Each candidate has a strategy team, financial advisers and marketing experts who produce fliers, videotaped commercials and pamphlets outlining each ticket's position on topics such as stem cell research, affirmative action and the No Child Left Behind law.
Other students hold the purse strings in an election funded with a $240 gift from the school's Parent Teacher Student Association, forming special interest groups that contribute money to candidates. It's up to the students to pick their causes, and this year's list includes both antiabortion and abortion rights groups, animal rights groups and proponents of reducing the national debt.
During yesterday's campaigning, senior Francine Shanahan, 16, handed Murray a brochure with a picture of a stork carrying a smiling baby. Inside it read: "What we want: completely override Roe vs. Wade."
"Our interest group would really like to ban abortion," Shanahan said.
"That's noble, but I don't think it's realistic," replied Murray, 18, adding that he supported some controls on abortion. "If it's a minor, a parent has to be there, present at the time, with identification."
In the end, Shanahan said she respected Murray's position, but her group's dollars went elsewhere.
Candidates can use the cash to buy buttons or T-shirts or treats to hand out on the media day each campaign holds, Ritchey said. Students also solicit donations from businesses and have returned to class with free art supplies and food.
Paige Williams, 17, one of two girls who are running, said she has thought a lot about the progress of women in politics. She chose a boy as a running mate because she didn't think an all-female ticket could win. And she appears as an action heroine in her commercial, besting a character that represents discrimination.
"I had to make sure I wasn't the damsel in distress and show I'm a strong, capable woman," she said.
Murray, who says he plans to vote for Bush on Nov. 2, said Centreville's campaign is a lesson in politics as it may become. "You get a sense of the stances of everyone in the senior class," he said. "You can get a sense of the issues that we're concerned about."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.