If there had been an applause-o-meter inside West Des Moines Valley High School Tuesday morning, students might have broken it when Republican presidential contender Ron Paul approached the Rock the Caucus podium.
The Texas congressman, who won a mock vote among Valley students last month, is leading in some polls and figuring to finish in the top three in others at tonight's Iowa Caucus. He enjoys stalwart support among young people, the target audience in the Rock the Caucus initiative to increase the participation of young voters in the political process.
The thunderous applause for Paul rocked the bleachers and caused a crush of media to turn their cameras away from the stage in the middle of the gymnasium to the bleachers where Valley seniors – most of who are eligible to vote in tonight’s precinct caucuses — cheered on their first preference among the candidates.
Affable and clearly enjoying his celebrity status with the young voters, Paul said he was at somewhat of a loss to explain why his candidacy resonates so strongly with young voters.
“The common answer is that I endorse and defend the Constitution … and believe you only get permission to go to war with a vote of Congress, not NATO,” Paul said, his remarks cut short by applause.
Patch will have live Caucus results as they come in tonight. Check back at 7 p.m. for stories and photos from Iowa Caucus precincts, then results and candidate reaction as the night goes on.
Valley seniors Ashley Willits and Delana Schuster were among them. With handheld video cameras and their smart phones, they were shooting the event for their high school yearbook, Tiger Tales. The pair listened carefully to each of the candidates and their surrogates — Paul, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and four of Mitt Romney’s five sons — for anything that will change their mind before they vote tonight.
Schuster’s as firm in her support for Paul as she was before the assembly began. Paul’s proposals on foreign policy — primarily not meddling in the affairs of other countries — have strong appeal.
“I like what he stands for, and really like what he says about getting out of other countries and focusing on our own country. That’s very powerful,” said Schuster, who plans to enroll at the University of Iowa in the fall and study criminal psychology. “He’s very consistent.”
“Both Romney and Paul have really good views about government and how much government should regulate our lives,” said Willits, who plans to attend the University of Iowa in the fall and major in graphic design and perhaps minor in journalism.
“I like how Romney knows how to run a government,” said Willits, whose mother, Diana Willits, is a city councilwoman for Windsor Heights, a Des Moines suburb. The Willits family talks openly about the pros and cons of the candidates.
Her parents are fierce Paul supporters, but Willits said she may break with the family to cast her vote for Romney.
“He knows how to run a system and how to maintain a state or a company,” she said.
Despite growing doubts about whether her campaign will survive past tonight, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who finished next to last in the students’ mock vote last month and is in the cellar in most polls, also received strong applause from the students — nothing to wreck the applause-o-meter, though.
“This is your chance to go out tonight and have your say,” she said, sounding like a cheerleader urging the team to fight, fight, fight for democracy, fight, fight, fight to win.
“Rock the vote,” she shouted. “Take your country back.”
Willits and Schuster liked that, but her campaign message — not so much.
“I liked the gas price thing,” Willits said of Bachmann’s comments about spiraling gas prices since Barack Obama took office. “That might win some teen-aged votes, but it may be difficult for her to do that.”
Schuster said Bachmann’s remarks were stirring and the congressman was obviously passionate about her beliefs, but is still planning to caucus for Paul.
“I get where she is coming from, and she was really passionate about it, but I’m set on Ron Paul,” she said.
As for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is surging in the polls and could pull out a surprise — ala Mike Huckabee, the 2008 winner of the Republican caucuses with strong support from evangelical Christians — the two students’ response was something akin to “Rick who?”
They’d heard little about Santorum, who finished last in the Valley mock vote and whose surge didn’t come until the final days before the caucus. He said nothing from the Rock the Caucus platform that moved Willits and Schuster to support him — and that fictitious applause-o-meter didn’t move much, either.
“I did like the part he said about him working for us, not the other way around, and holding politicians accountable,” Willits said.