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It's easy to get cynical about the presidential campaign, especially with Iowa's caucuses quickly approaching and some of the candidates now on the attack. But see it up close and the process can be profoundly moving - really. That's what a class from Indiana's Manchester University found as it traveled across Iowa last week. NPR's Scott Detrow caught up with the class in Des Moines on its last stop of the trip.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Instead of spending their winter break relaxing or earning some cash, 11 students from the small liberal arts school piled into a red van with suspect heating, braving the Iowa cold to experience the caucuses firsthand.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: We started with Sanders, let's see, Ben Carson - Clinton, Carson, Christie, Rubio, Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Santorum.
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BERNIE SANDERS: I think it is fair to say that the war in Iraq was the worst foreign policy disaster.
DETROW: They even stood on stage behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, says sophomore Tate Wooding.
TATE WOODING: We got a great view of his head. But it was very interesting to see the crowd.
DETROW: Now, at the end of the week, they're making one final stop to look at an exhibit about caucus history at Iowa's State Museum.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Iowans don't pick the president.
DETROW: One of the most surprising things for students who are used to watching politics on the news - how up close and personal the whole thing is.
ASHLYN LEAMON: It makes politics seem more real here because it's not just on a TV screen. You can actually see them, be with them
DETROW: Ashlyn Leamon says when they're watching candidates shaking hands in restaurants, bars and town halls, she kept being struck by the fact that, hey, one of these people will actually be president.
LEAMON: That kind of encourages, like, oh, yeah, I got to get a selfie just in case.
DETROW: Kathryn Hickman says New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the most impressive candidate. Most of the class agreed.
KATHRYN HICKMAN: I actually cried at his event because it was really personal.
DETROW: Every four years, there's a lot of talk about whether Iowa should be the first state to have its say in the electoral process. After spending a week here, the Manchester University students all say, yeah, Iowa deserves it.
DANIELLE ROBERTSON: When we were at Chris Christie, there was a kid that asked a question. It was a really good, like, policy question that most kids in other states would have no clue what to do with.
DETROW: That's Danielle Robertson. She and her classmates say they're all struck by how much Iowans care about the whole thing, how early they show up to the rallies to see candidates. Of course, only a small percentage of Iowans typically show up on caucus night. But still, freshman Matt Pritz says all that close-up access to candidates aside, it's the people at the rallies who will really stick with him.
MATT PRITZ: So to see kind of, like, the guts of the campaign, that kind of, like, gave me butterflies because you're like, this guy is up on stage talking, but without the people here right now, he possibly wouldn't be able to be up there.
DETROW: The spring semester will have resumed by the time Iowans vote February 1, but their professor, Leonard Williams, says they're planning to all get together to watch the results come in. Scott Detrow, NPR News.
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