HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — There were students everywhere. They held makeshift “Legalize Marijuana” signs. They held posters and banners from the Obama and McCain campaigns. The League of Conservation Voters passed out treats from Dunkin Donuts. The production staff of MSNBC’s “Hardball” maneuvered the crowd of students into the perfect backdrop.

The third and final presidential debate had come to Hofstra University, and students here could not have been more enthused.

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“For any school, this is the biggest thing that happens to you,” said David Green, a professor of political science at Hofstra. “You have the third and final debate right here on this campus. You can bet that our students are tuning in, in a big way.”

Many students were forced to do just that — tune in — Wednesday night, to a debate held on their own campus. Student passes to the debate were few and far between — 150 tickets for an undergraduate population of 7,700.

“In all of my classes, the professors asked if anyone had tickets to the debate,” said Jim Gathers, a freshman. “In each of them, including my 50-person lecture, no one raised their hand.”

The real show in Hempstead opened months ago.

Ever since it was selected to host the debate last November, Hofstra officials have made helping students make the most out of the opportunity a top priority.

“They really tried to build up our enthusiasm,” said Hofstra senior Shaina Morrison.

The promotional program ­— dubbed Educate ’08 by the school — has brought politics to Hofstra in a way students interviewed said they have never seen on campus. The program, which featured speakers such as Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh, also sponsored several debate-watching parties Wednesday night.

Hundreds attended the parties — students hoping to follow the action by stymied by the dearth of tickets.

Gathers was one of many Hofstra students tuning into politics for the first time this cycle because of his campus’ central role in the drama.

“I never was into politics, but having this in my backyard really enlightened me to this whole new thing,” Gathers said.

Green, who took two busloads of students to New Hampshire in January for the state’s primaries, said the implications of the 2008 election have drawn many students off the political sidelines.

“This is a giant election in American history,” he said. “It is really mobilizing the youth vote.”

And Hofstra — for tonight — was at the center of it all.

“As a first-time voter it is great being in the center of the American political world,” said Courtney O’Connor, a junior. “Even if it is just for one night.”