WEST DES MOINES—On the final morning before the Iowa caucuses, a group of Republican presidential hopefuls went to one of the few places where they were guaranteed a large, captive audience: a high-school gymnasium, full of seniors who had been released from class. It was the first day back from winter break, and the room buzzed with excitement as friends caught up with one another. Things calmed down once the candidates took the stage.
A high school might seem like an odd venue for a final voter push; after all, only a fraction of the students are of voting age. But the caucuses allow anyone who will have turned 18 by next fall's general election to vote, meaning most high-school seniors and many juniors can head to their local caucus tonight.
Michele Bachmann, flanked by two of her daughters, spoke first. She tried to relate to the kids by pulling out an iPhone and marveling at how technology has changed the world. It came across as out of touch; the students sitting next to me slowly began to nod off. Mitt Romney’s representatives came next. The candidate himself couldn't make it, so four of his five sons—all in their early 30s to early 40s—stood in his place. Despite being closer in age to the students than any of the presidential candidates, Romney’s sons elicited only a lukewarm reaction; the crowd sat silently as Tagg Romney trumpeted the wholesomeness of their family. The majority dutifully raised their hands when Tagg asked if they were planning to caucus tonight and did so again when he asked if they were going to the Republican caucus.
The room began to buzz shortly after the Super Romney Bros headed for their post-speech television debriefing, but it was just the media swarm descending on Rick Santorum as the students watched. The candidate who once struggled to attract media attention now had to muscle his way through the hoard of cameras. But even Santorum couldn’t spark passion in the students. His normal stump speech, which details his family's immigration history and always seems to enthuse the devoted evangelicals who come out to see him, produced a tepid response in the gym.
But then the mood shifted. Ron Paul was up to bat. "I’m wondering, does anyone here know the name Kelly Clarkson," the hepcat of the Republican field asked the students. "Because recently she endorsed me a couple of weeks ago and something happened. I have to admit, I didn't know a whole lot about her, but I do know that our supporters are so enthusiastic about it they went out and bumped up sales of her record by 600 percent."
Paul is the clear front-runner among younger voters, as evidenced by the reaction of Valley High School students. Paul’s anti-war foreign policy was a big hit, and even his talk of Austrian economics got a positive response. He avoided too much heavy talk, though, and landed on a subject sure to rile the students: legalizing pot.
High-schoolers running for student government introduced each of the candidates (the students all displayed remarkable composure considering the row of network TV cameras trained at them from below the stage). Paul's libertarian message to limit authorities’ power seems to have made an impression on the girl who introduced him. "I think that students from sports shouldn't have to take P.E.," she said to some of the wildest applause of the morning.