Student stand-ins debate WUSTL-style

A little over halfway into the debate — a rousing discourse characterized by hard-nosed, back-and-forth banter between two candidates — the moderator paused, looked each person behind the podium in the eye, and asked the big question:

Senior Joe Cavanaugh (left) takes a question from junior Danielle Porter (center) as junior Madeline Thoman waits to reply. It was the first of two rehearsals involving students Oct. 1.

“When it comes to making a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, do you use strawberry or grape?”

It wasn’t the debate; it was a practice debate a little more than 24 hours prior to the real one. The moderator wasn’t Gwen Ifill; it was senior Lydia Beasley. And the candidates weren’t Joe Biden and Sarah Palin; they were junior Danny Gaynor and senior Julia Latash, standing in so CNN — the network providing the pool feed for all television media covering the debate — could check lights, sound and camera angles.

Gaynor, a political science major in Arts & Sciences from Newton, Mass., and Latash, a senior international studies major in Arts & Sciences from Glenview, Ill., stood under lights and took questions from Beasley, a senior biomedical engineering major, for about an hour. Beasley asked about everything from favorite colors, to the statue on campus of The Thinker, to the merits of the new Danforth University Center.

The answer to the aforementioned PBJ question? “I only use raspberry from Trader Joe’s,” Gaynor said with all seriousness as if he were discussing foreign policy or the tax code. “It’s natural and sugar-free and good for you.”

They debated, they sparred, they gestured, they bantered off-the-cuff for a better part of an hour. “I like the merits of both cats and dogs,” Latash said when asked to choose, skirting the question like a seasoned politician.

Afterward, they took turns taking snapshots of each other behind the lecterns on the stage that the eyes of the world would be upon the next night. “We didn’t really know we were going to actually debate,” Latash said. “It’s hard to be up there for that long. I understand now what the candidates are going to be going through.”

Beasley had the job of thinking up questions to keep the two debating, and she delivered, keeping the format light and fun. “It was hard to keep thinking of questions,” she said. “I was told to stay away from anything political.”

All three said they had a new appreciation for the process, getting more comfortable with the lights and seeing themselves on TV monitors as the debate went on. “I’m amazed by how small the debate hall is,” Latash said. “Everything appears bigger on TV.”

All three got the “job” as stand-ins after answering an e-mail sent to volunteers looking for students with similar build, skin tone, height — and glasses — as the candidates. And they weren’t the only students getting the opportunity to stand up on stage.

Earlier in the day at another stage rehearsal, Joe Cavanaugh, a senior political science major from Nyack, N.Y., stood in for Biden; Madeline Thoman, a junior political science and environmental studies major, both in Arts & Sciences, from Cincinnati, stood in for Palin; and Danielle Porter, a junior biomedical engineering major from Scotch Plains, N.J., took her seat in Ifill’s chair.

“I jumped on that e-mail right away,” Gaynor said. “If I had had the chance to see this stage the day before as a volunteer, I’d want to be up at the podium doing it for fun anyway. The fact I’m doing it for CNN is awesome.”