DURHAM, New Hampshire — The University of New Hampshire campus is like a postcard, except way more picturesque. Buildings with names like Babcock House and Jessie Doe Hall stretch for miles along tree-lined streets, with neat rows of red bricks and whitewashed columns heading into infinity. Green grass rolls out like plush carpet, dotted with students in all forms of repose. There are tiny lunch wagons selling coffee and club sandwiches, secret pathways that crisscross through leafy forests and stone bridges that leap over rusty railroad tracks.
Of course, it's also exactly like almost every other college campus in the U.S. in that in the midst of all this idyllic beauty, there's also a good amount of discontent. Students here are concerned with the way our country is being run, worried about health care and immigration and gay rights. When asked, they'll talk at length about the war in Iraq, the environment and why they're torn between candidates like Republican Rudy Giuliani (on the plus side, he seems like a strong, decisive leader, but will he just toe the GOP line?) and Democrat Hillary Clinton (her experience is a plus, but is she too moderate to make a difference?).Almost everyone I talked to described the UHN campus as liberal, and most students seem to be leaning toward Clinton or Barack Obama for president, but they're willing to listen to almost anyone. That's probably why Democrat John Edwards chose Durham as the place to hold his MTV/MySpace presidential dialogue Thursday at noon ET, during which he'll answer your questions submitted via MTV.com and MySpaceIM. But if he's expecting a free ride, well, UNH students aren't about to give it to him.
"I'm taking classes where I'm learning about climate change, so I'll be able to decide whether or not his responses about things like global warming and alternative energy hold any weight," said sophomore Shannon O'Brien, who's majoring in environmental conservation studies. "It's an issue that'll certainly play throughout the campaign, and it's one that's on people's minds, but I'm hoping he won't just pay it lip service."
"My family is Republican, but I'm a little worried about someone like Mitt Romney, and I don't feel like Hillary would be a good choice either," junior Derek Guglielmino added. "I'm definitely planning on voting, so I'd be interested in hearing what [Edwards] has to say about things like the war and taxes. But I don't know if anything he'll say could sway me."
And with Election Day still more than a year away, students are going to have plenty of opportunities to hear what the candidates are saying. Every major Democratic and Republican hopeful has — or will have — logged substantial time at the state's largest university over the coming months, because they know that the decisions of UNH students hold a lot of clout. After all, White House dreams will be dashed and buoyed by the results of next year's New Hampshire primary.
But does the state's near-constant influx of Democrats and Republicans leave UNH students feeling, well, a bit used?
"Well, I know it's important for them. Politics is politics, and reaching out to people and telling them what they want to hear is pretty much the main goal," said 22-year-old Jessica Engel, who grew up in nearby Bedford. "It's a little strange to see them come and go, but it's part of the game. And for me it's good, because I haven't really made up my mind who I'm going to vote for, and I feel like this particular election is very important."
But across from campus, seniors Sam Wolak and David McQuaide don't seem particularly upset by the attention, and they, too, grew up in New Hampshire. Instead, they're killing time on the sunny porch of an Irish pub, hanging out with their buddies Shawn Ballou and Mike Regan and talking about the way they've been whittling down their list of candidates for '08. And it doesn't have much to do with forums or decorum or anything like that.
Rather, it's a very loud, very public form of discourse, and it sort of reminds you that for all the ideals you hear bouncing around the well-manicured lawns, UNH is still first and foremost a college with kids who want to do decidedly college things. And if Edwards is looking to make up ground here, perhaps he'd consider taking part (see "On The Campaign Trail With John Edwards, By Kim Stolz").
"The other night I got drunk and had this huge democratic debate," Wolak laughed. "I was basically arguing with anyone that if Hillary and Obama decided to team up, there's no way they could lose. I don't know. It seemed like a really good concept at the time."
The MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue with John Edwards will take place Thursday at 12 p.m. ET. The entire dialogue will be webcast live through both MTV.com and MySpaceTV.com, and will then be rebroadcast on MTV on Thursday at 7 p.m.