GOP Candidates Go Back to School in Des Moines

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for Time

Presidentail candidate Ron Paul addresses a crowd of first time voters at a Rock the Caucus event at Valley High school in West Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2011.

Des Moines, Iowa

Three candidates and one candidate’s band of sons attended Valley High this morning to make one final appeal to young voters before this evening’s caucuses. Their brief speeches, given in a gym draped with Tigers pennants, ranged from painfully patronizing to esoteric. We’re going back to school with them, doling out grades for Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney’s brunet brood, plus a gut-reaction survey of the kids in attendance.

Michele Bachmann: D

A student introduced the Minnesota congresswoman with only two credentials: her vast number of offspring and her in-state birthplace. It only got worse. The kids murmured among themselves throughout a speech that tried to play to their vanity. These students would decide the next President, Bachmann said. “Go Tigers!” she yelled to halfhearted cheers. At a low point, in a desperate attempt to relate, she commented on how remarkable it is that they can watch music videos on their phones.  (When she was growing up, she marveled, people had to plug their telephonic machines into walls.) The students actually booed her pandering when she asked how many of them wanted to be Steve Jobs. Faced with a crowd who wouldn’t be won over with promises about repealing ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank, she resorted to waving her iPhone around.

The Romney Sons: C

While Bachmann insulted the kids’ intelligence, the Romney sons neglected to make their talking points palatable for a high school crowd. The fact that Romney himself didn’t show put them at a disadvantage to start, but the handsome young Romneys further lost their crowd with references to budget surpluses in Massachusetts and their father’s 25-year career in business. When the Romneys attacked the President, one student flashed a makeshift “OBAMA” sign. The oft forgotten enthusiasm gap between the average Iowan and the Iowan who shows up to a town hall in the back room of a Mason City restaurant was apparent. They did at least get some hoots from young girls when they were done. Passing out a promotional calendar might have been more effective.

Ron Paul: B-

Students running for the high school presidency gave their stump speeches in between the candidate appearances. And the only cheer rivaling that for Ron Paul was heard when one young girl promised to banish mandatory P.E. After getting a loving welcome, Paul proceeded to open with a Bachmann-esque stretch for relevance. Rather than spout his usual message of individual liberty, Paul figured that an American Idol’s album sales might be more compelling. “Does anybody know the name Kelly Clarkson?” he asked. Well, he said, she had endorsed him and that had, in turn, made her music fly off the shelves. This failed to stir the crowd, but Paul found his footing as he got back to basics: get out of the wars, protect the value of the dollar, do what you want, he said. “The government is not to restrain you as an individual,” he said. “You can run your life as you so choose.” It’s hard to imagine a more compelling edict for teenagers.

Rick Santorum: B

Santorum’s super-conservative positions are not a natural fit with a high school crowd, but he gave the most fluent speech of the bunch. His message of family first and following the will of the Founding Fathers, cheesy as it might sound, didn’t come off as patronizing or soporific. In the middle of his speech, he started a list. “Number one,” he said, at which point the audio system blipped loudly. He paused. “Number two,” he went on with a cheeky look. This could have been the equivalent of a kid dropping a lunch tray. Instead, it was the only point during the whole morning when the crowd had a good guffaw. There were exactly three signs held up for him in the audience, which was more than most others could claim, and the crowd’s interest was piqued when he talked about how young he’d been when he was first elected to office. The students were far from enthralled, but they were at least compelled to be quiet and listen.

Afterward, TIME asked several groups of students to give the first word that came to mind after seeing each candidate (or their surrogates) speak. Here’s what they had to say.

Bachmann: Crazy. Different. Crazy. Wavering. Rude. Woman. Minnesota. Woman. Crazy. Crazy. Extreme. Woman. Waterloo. Homey.

Romney: Meh. Alright. Mormon. Kind. Chill. Money. Politician. Bad. Money. Money. China. Mormon. Children. Accomplished.

Paul: Hero. Likeable. Conservative. Strong. Concerned. Best. War. Amazing. Libertarian. Old. Not-my-favorite. Good doctor. Awesome. Supported.

Santorum: Okay. Awful. Awesome. Unknown. Underdog. Wonderful. [No answer]. Nice. Conservative. Family. Religion. Pretty good. Immigrant. Unique.

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