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College Republicans In N.H. Say Candidates Should Stop Playing Dumb

Editors of the conservative <em>Dartmouth Review</em>, from left to right: Sterling Beard, 22, from Abilene, Texas, the <em>Review</em>'s editor-in-chief; Benjamin Riley, 20, from New York City; Blake Neff, 21, from Sioux Falls, S.D.
John W. Poole
Editors of the conservative Dartmouth Review, from left to right: Sterling Beard, 22, from Abilene, Texas, the Review's editor-in-chief; Benjamin Riley, 20, from New York City; Blake Neff, 21, from Sioux Falls, S.D.

The theme of the 2012 GOP presidential contest has been dissatisfaction with the candidates, and a rollicking battle for the honor of being the anti-Mitt Romney alternative.

We were curious about what young conservatives have been thinking about the race, which moved to New Hampshire Wednesday after Iowa's decidedly non-decisive caucuses.

So NPR photographer John Poole and I, after a night at former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's headquarters in Bedford, N.H., decided to head west to Dartmouth College in Hanover.

In the Collis Center for Student Involvement, bustling with students just back from winter break, we sat down with three editors of The Dartmouth Review. The publication was founded three decades ago to give voice to conservatives on campus. Its alums include conservative writers and talkers, including Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D'Souza.

Joining us were editor-in-chief Sterling Beard, 22, a senior from Abilene, Texas; and editors Blake Neff, 21, from Sioux Falls, S.D., and Benjamin Riley, 20, from New York City, both juniors.

Here are excerpts of our conversation:

On The Quality Of The Republican Field

Beard: "After two or three debates, I felt like I was looking at a room of vice presidents. No one is excited about a [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney candidacy. It tells me that the party as a whole wants to shift further right."

Riley, who describes himself as conservative on fiscal issues, libertarian on social issues: "It seems to me that Republicans are looking at candidates with crossover appeal. People are scared because they don't see a good candidate out there. [Texas Rep.] Ron Paul is very good at galvanizing support, but he's not electable. He does this every election cycle."

On What They've Been Encouraged To See

Neff: "I like the furor over the individual mandate. It's allowed the spread of a lot of conversation about constitutional principles. It wasn't a big issue for Republicans before; now the party has regained a principle of government not controlling what you do in the economic realm."

Riley: "I've been heartened by the emergence of [former Utah Gov.] Jon Huntsman. He won't win, and may not make a dent. But that he could run for the Republican nomination brought me back a bit. It makes Republicans look more reasonable."

Beard: "During the Bush years, the party became more centrist. It's nice to see people discussing fiscal responsibility."

On Who They Would Have Liked To See Run

Beard: "Paul Ryan [the House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin]. He has a wonkiness that appeals in economic hard times."

Benjamin Riley, 20, of New York City, a junior at Dartmouth College and an editor on <em>The Dartmouth Review</em>.
John W. Poole / NPR / NPR
Benjamin Riley, 20, of New York City, a junior at Dartmouth College and an editor on The Dartmouth Review.

Riley: "Chris Christie [the New Jersey governor]. He has just the right amount of panache, the 'X' factor that a guy like Barack Obama had."

Neff: "Mitch Daniels [the Indiana governor]. He's still not perfect, but he embodies what people want Romney to be. A true anti-Obama. But a very bland guy."

On How The Party Should Handle Social Issues, Including Abortion And Same-Sex Marriage

Beard: "Now is not the time to fight those battles. People think about those issues when they can pay their mortgage. Santorum has the right message, but at the wrong time."

Riley: "These issues for me are secondary. The best thing would be to have the federal government take its hands off."

Neff: "I'm totally on the anti-abortion crusade. I morally can't vote for a pro-abortion candidate. The Republican Party would make a huge mistake by copying Democrats on social issues. Gay marriage? While I oppose it, it's becoming an albatross for the party."

On The Anti-Intellectualism That Some See Starting To Define The Party

Neff: "There is an intellectual atrophy. Republicans use to be the party of strong fiscal policy. Now it is the party of tax cuts. It's not an intellectual approach to just talk about cutting taxes. I feel there's a lot of populism choking off what could be cool new ideas. On education, on immigration."

Riley: "The most troubling part of the rightward shift, for someone like me who believes in evolution and the climate change issue, has been the anti-intellectualism that has infected that. I don't know if candidates actually believe what they're saying, or are just saying dumb things intentionally to appeal to the lowest common denominator."

On Whether Republicans Can Take The White House In November

Riley: "No way Obama doesn't win, not with the candidates the Republicans have thrown out there."

Beard: "We're chain smoking our candidates. But unemployment is close to 9 percent," and Beard noted that no president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a second term with an Election Day unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.