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Sagar Vijay, 17 and a senior at Bellarmine High School, participated in a... (David M. Barreda)

They saw through the rhetoric. Made note of every zinger — as well as many of the inconsistencies. And while analyzing Tuesday night's presidential debate, valley high school debate champs were impressed by Sen. Barack Obama's command and taken aback by Sen. John McCain's "crude" barbs.

The Mercury News invited champion debaters from Bellarmine College Preparatory and Leland High School to assess the second presidential debate. Both schools are in San Jose and many of the students in the Democratic-heavy Bay Area said their parents are Obama supporters.

Eight of the eleven students said Obama handily won and stood out as the more persuasive, and more presidential, figure. One student gave the edge to McCain; two pronounced it a draw. However, many said the debate probably changed few voters' minds.

"After the initial pokes and jabs, it was a race to the middle," said Sagar Vijay, a senior at Bellarmine. "Obama had a better command of rhetoric. When he talked of how his mother died of cancer, he put himself in others' shoes."

A key moment in the 90-minute town-hall-style debate held in Nashville was when McCain pointed his finger at Obama and referred to his fellow senator as "that one" in reference to a Senate vote on a controversial energy bill. That elicited audible gasps from the teenagers, all of whom are too young to vote in the Nov. 4 election.

"McCain was a lot more crude," said Vijay Sridharan, a junior at Bellarmine. "His pointing to Obama and the phrase 'that one.' To see that lack of professionalism on a presidential debate was shocking."

Many students said the candidates largely stuck to their key talking points and repeated catchphrases from the campaign trail, breaking little new ground, though they noted McCain outlined a new plan to buy bad mortgages and that both sides seemed to repeatedly return to energy policy.

One note of particular interest to Silicon Valley: McCain mentioned Meg Whitman, eBay's former CEO, as a possible choice for Treasury secretary; however, it caused a few in the room to mutter, "Didn't they just do layoffs?"

Many students said Obama did a better job of spelling out specific policy proposals and looking to the future, while McCain seemed stuck in the past.

"McCain used a kind of 'Back to the Future' approach," said Taman Narayan, a senior at Leland High School. "He kept saying, 'My friends, look at Ronald Reagan, look at Teddy Roosevelt, look at the surge.' Obama took the mantle and moved it forward.''

Noting Obama's call to fight climate change and characterizing health care as an American "right" — as opposed to McCain calling it a "responsibility" — Bellarmine senior Evan Larson said, "Obama kept calling us to embrace our highest values."

Bellarmine junior Kyle Vandenberg agreed, saying that in between exchanging the personal jabs, the two illustrated different philosophies. "McCain was talking about what Americans want, but Obama was talking to what Americans should want."

However, he noted that McCain seemed more confident in the town-hall format, compared with the previous debate in Mississippi. Tuesday's format allowed the Arizona senator to pace and get closer to audience members.

Leland, a public school, and Bellarmine, the private Jesuit school, are both local debating powerhouses that regularly win statewide competitions.

The students took note of key debating tactics, from body language and hand gestures to ability to answer questions. Senior Aparna Ramanan of Leland High was impressed when Obama mentioned that the price of gas in Nashville was $3.80 a gallon.

"To take the time to mention local gas prices — that was very smart," she said, adding that it signaled Obama took time out of his schedule to note the local prices so he could better connect with residents.

Still, she noted a lot of contradictions, and was frustrated when the candidates fell short of honestly talking about how they'd make painful choices.

"McCain called for a spending freeze on everything but defense, but said he wants to work on everything simultaneously," Aparna said. "Obama talked about a net cut to federal spending but never said what he would cut."

Tuesday night's debate was the only one of the three presidential debates to include questions submitted from undecided voters in the audience and online. NBC's Tom Brokaw, the moderator, selected the questions ahead of the debate.

Though numerous state and national polls show Obama inching slightly ahead of McCain in key swing states, many voters are still undecided as the presidential election hits its final four-week stretch.

Contact Dana Hull at or (408) 920-2706.