Avi Romanoff spent months preparing to play the role of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in a mock school primary.
The 15-year-old sophomore at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr scoured the presidential hopeful's website and followed the political coverage. He also watched as many of the GOP presidential debates as he could, not only to learn Huntsman's stance on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy, but to gain a deep sense of how he phrases things and responds to questions.
And then, the real Huntsman went and dropped out of the race. The former U.S. ambassador to China had suffered a disappointing third place finish in New Hampshire — a state where he'd placed much of his hopes — and was facing the prospect of finishing at or near the bottom in Saturday's upcoming South Carolina primary.
For Romanoff, the development meant he was knocked out of the race just one day before his school's mock primary, which was held on Tuesday.
But he insisted it wasn't all for naught: He still had the chance to speak in front of his classmates before they voted and urge them to back Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and front-runner in the bid for the Republican nomination. His endorsement proved true to form: The real Huntsman endorsed his fellow Mormon before leaving the campaign trail.
A week earlier, in a lead-up to the school's primary, Romanoff had the chance to portray Huntsman in a mock debate in front of the whole school.
"The whole part of this process is not just to pick a candidate and support him, but really to understand the issues," the student said, adding that personally, he "tends to float in the middle" of both parties. "Really sitting down and being able to articulate other people's ideas is so much more than just listening to them."
Every presidential election year since 1988, Barrack — formerly the Akiba Hebrew Academy — has held a political conference and mock primary. The idea is to fully engage students in the democratic process and to educate them on the issues facing the voting public.
The tradition that's developed at Barrack is that the school holds a mock primary for the party not in control of the White House.
The halls, lockers, classrooms and even the restrooms were decked out in political signs in support of the Republican candidates still standing: Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It seemed that the students had learned a thing or two about real-world politics, with some of the signs attacking a particular candidate.
Throughout the process, students learned about the Republican Party's approach to limited government and fiscal restraint.
In addition to last-minute campaigning and the actual vote on Tuesday, the half-day program also offered the student body the chance to interact with some real-world politicos and the media pros who cover them. U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican whose Delaware County district includes the Jewish day school, gave the keynote address.
"The timing of this conference is quite good as it comes in the middle of the primary election season, and you are doing the right thing, asking questions and engaging in the political process," said the freshman lawmaker.
Speakers for breakout workshops included: Josh Shapiro, an Akiba alum and newly elected Montgomery County commissioner, Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County's district attorney, Michael Smerconish, a nationally syndicated radio host, and Brian Taff, 6 ABC Action News co-anchor.
One campaign veteran, political and communications consultant Larry Ceisler, offered a breakout session for students called "The Republican Primaries: Democratic Perspective."
He mostly pressed the students about their own thoughts on politics. He found that many in the room get their news primarily from shows like "The Colbert Report" and are a bit apathetic about the race.
Ceisler said the shows fall within the American tradition of political satire and are actually quite informative, but urged the students to broaden their news sources.
Few students responded decisively when Ceisler asked them which candidate they would support. One girl told him that she didn't care who won and was only voting because she had to.
Ceisler responded that not voting represents a kind of protest statement. He argued that the economic policies of the next president, whoever it turns out to be, will profoundly affect the job prospects of current high school students, and that young people have a huge stake in the election.
The actual vote was the main event of the day. Students made their choice by secret ballot.
The kids had to pick one of the Republican contenders and weren't allowed to vote for President Barack Obama. Of the 234 votes cast, Romney took 54 percent of the vote, Ron Paul came in second with 12 percent. Four years ago, the students narrowly picked Obama over then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Joshua Horowitz, the junior who portrayed Romney and worked closely with faculty to make sure he captured the candidate accurately, said: "I don't agree with everything he says. Even though I am a lot more liberal than he is, it was still fun."
After spending some time in the former Massachusetts governor's shoes, so to speak, Horowitz said he found a whole new respect for retail politics and politicians.
"In addition to obviously learning Romney's views in-depth, I learned how hard it actually is to do the campaigning," said Horowitz. "Just on the school level, it was a lot of work. I can't imagine how hard it would be on a whole, national campaign."
Shoshana Fishbein, an 11th grader, voted for Perry and even enthusiastically campaigned for him, even though she considers herself a liberal.
"I don't believe that he will win, I don't agree with him, however it was a great exercise. It's nice to learn about the other side, because even though I'm a Democrat, it doesn't mean a Democrat is necessarily going to win," said Fishbein, who along with most of the juniors at Barrack recently returned from a semester in Israel.
For Fishbein, the whole notion of casting a pretend vote "feels more genuine now that we're getting to an age that we can actually vote."
Eliyahu Korn, also a junior, said he's not a huge fan of either party but if he had to pick one, it would be the GOP, and Israel is his primary concern.
"The way the election was pitched to us in school was made a lot more voter-friendly because we could hear equally from each candidate," he said, contrasting that to the real world of national politics, where "a lot of the publicity depends on who has the best funding for their campaign and the most visible advertising."