Reporting from West Des Moines, Iowa — “Does anyone know the name Kelly Clarkson?” asked Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman whose appeal will be tested Tuesday night as Iowans become the first to make their preferences known in the 2012 presidential contest.
The gymnasium of Valley High School, filled with several hundred students just back from Christmas break, erupted in cheers. Paul didn’t know who Clarkson was until she threw her support behind him recently. She was the first winner of “American Idol,” in 2002.
After Clarkson came out for Paul, he told the students, “Our supporters went out and bumped up her sales by 600%.” (That’s a pretty nifty trick when the endorser benefits more than the endorsee.)
At Valley High, Tuesday was Rock the Vote day, a political rally and civics lesson organized by the 21-year-old group devoted to engaging young people in the political process. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, you can participate,” said Matt Schultz, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state. “Tonight, you can make a difference.”
Three presidential candidates, including Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, plus four of Mitt Romney’s five sons, stopped by the home of the Tigers to give their pitches. Some of the students were old enough to participate in the caucuses Tuesday night, others will be able to vote in November.
The students crowded onto orange plastic bleachers in the gym as administrators pleaded in vain for some of the dozens of journalists who were blocking the view with tripods to please move so the kids could see the program.
Paul, who has what he described as a mysterious connection with youth, received the warmest welcome. “I don’t know the exact reason for it,” said Paul. “I endorse and defend the Constitution and that’s very appealing to young people.”
The candidates’ appearances were punctuated by a mock caucus during which students made their own pitches for president of the school. Jasmine Au, a 17-year-old senior, vowed to fight the school’s attempt to ban grinding, the overtly sexualized dancing that has caused heartburn for school administrators across the country. “The administration needs to treat students like the young adults we are,” she said.
Santorum brought his wife, Karen, and six of their seven children. He spoke about being raised in an immigrant family, and his grandfather who came from Italy. “Now here is his grandson standing here running for president of the United States. That is the real greatness of America.”
Bachmann, introduced two of her daughters, spoke briefly.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sent four of his five sons. “I’m here to brag about my dad,” said Tagg Romney. He told a story about his father-- “as cheap a human being as you ever met.” Mitt Romney wanted to build a fence to protect against noise from the nearby street, said Tagg, and when professional estimates proved too high, he rounded up his son and wife to build it. “My dad wanted us to build that fence and teach his sons the importance and value of hard work.”
Tagg echoed his father’s frequent criticism of President Obama. “I think Barack Obama is actually a pretty good person, a good father, with good intentions,” said Romney, “but I think he’s in over his head.” A young man in the audience held up a hand-lettered “Obama” sign in protest.
Democrats were not entirely absent from the event. “This is a really fabulous party,” Sue Dvorsky, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, told students. “Every four years, the whole world and whole country comes to watch us.”
Sitting in the bleachers with his buddies, senior Jake Dehaai said he was leaning toward Paul, and liked seeing the candidates in person instead of on the debate stage “because the debates can get hostile.”
Anna Zilbermints, 17, said that, as a liberal, she was put off by Bachmann. “Honestly, I don’t like her,” Zilbermints said. “A lot of them are really intent on bringing religion into the government. She put a lot of emphasis on the ‘Christmas’ part of Christmas break. That really annoyed me.”