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Norwegian exchange students at Northampton High School see debate as lesson in American presidential politics

So naturally, she was eager to see President Barack Obama do well in Tuesday’s town hall debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Her classmate, Sigrid Mothes, also 17, was hoping for a more balanced debate-watching experience.

“I hope to see a very heated debate with a lot of arguments on both sides,” Mothes said, in an interview Tuesday afternoon in the Northampton High School library.

“I root for Obama but I hope Romney will also show up some good points,” Mothes said. “It’s the reason why he is where he is now, why it’s such a close race.”

As citizens of Norway, the two young women, who are among a group of 14 exchange students visiting NHS for about two weeks this fall, won’t be voting in November. But since their arrival Oct. 8 they have learned plenty about the American political system.

The students, who all hail from Jessheim, Norway, have been attending classes, staying with local families and touring the region as part of an exchange funded by the Amherst-based Institute for Training and Development.

Their visit completes the circle of an exchange last spring, when 18 NHS sophomores visited Norway.

While they won’t be formally studying U.S. politics until next year, the Norwegian students have had a crash course in American-style campaigns over the past week.

Besides the presidential race, Mothes said she has been following the U.S. Senate contest between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican incumbent Scott Brown.

“I’ve seen a lot of signs,” Mothes said. “And I saw an ad saying that Elizabeth Warren is Native American. That seemed kind of crazy to me to have this going on.”

Negative campaigning is one major difference between Norwegian and American politics, said Magnus Engo, 17.

“The political commercials here are not legit,” he said. “I saw a commercial saying Obama had committed fraud. That would be immoral” in Norway.

In Norway, which is a constitutional monarchy, campaigns for seats in the national assembly are shorter, with fewer ads and public debates and many more political parties involved, the students said.

“You can’t have a government in Norway without a coalition,” noted their teacher, Jeanne Skanke, who is also on exchange here from Norway.

While she was dismayed by the cost of the presidential campaign, as seen in the amount of money both Obama and Romney have raised, Solveig Mortensen said she was impressed by how “engaged” people in Northampton appear to be in the upcoming election.

“You see signs everywhere and it seems like people are very interested,” she said. “In Norway, there are a lot of people who don’t really care that much. I think if you care about your country, you should vote.”

The students had initially planned to watch Tuesday night’s 9 p.m. debate as a group in the NHS library. But because it would be ending so late, they opted for watching separately in the homes of their host families.

(Weighing in on a local school issue, the four students interviewed by the Gazette all said the 7:30 a.m. start time at NHS is too early.)

So, what did they make of the town hall proceedings at Hofstra University?

Reached by phone midway through the debate, Engo said he felt the format was sometimes about “plain entertainment more than winning voters.”

At that point, he gave the edge to Obama, particularly on the president’s answers to questions about tax policies and the deficit.

“Romney is trying to make money out of nowhere,” Engo said. “I like how confident Obama seems.”

Kaastad also felt Obama did well on a question about women in the work force.

“When it comes to Obama, I think he reaches out to women more than Romney,” she said. “Obama said this is also about families and about men. It’s great that he’s taken everyone under his wing.”

Will the debate change any voters’ minds?

“It could,” Kaastad said. “Both of them were on edge and wanted to do well. They feel like they have to prove they are the right choice.”

The Scandinavian students will be heading home on Friday, after a day in New York City. NHS adminstrators are hoping to find funding for another round of exchanges next spring.

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