CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — They started lining up outside the Dows Fine Arts Center on the Coe College campus some three hours before the scheduled start of the MTV/MySpace presidential dialogue with Barack Obama, some in hoodies and Kohawk baseball long-sleeve shirts, others in shorts and Joy Division tees.
And by 11:30 a.m. local time, that line stretched past the Sinclair Memorial Chapel, beyond Stuart Hall and almost to the Wendy's (this is a great distance in Coe terms), some 300 students anxiously awaiting their chance to grill the senator from Illinois.
That enthusiasm extended all the way from the front of the line to the very back, where a pair of Coe students who can't even vote — Matei Dima, a 20-year-old sophomore from Romania, and Padram Norton, a 21-year-old junior from Northern Ireland — waited in the early-morning chill to have a look and a listen.
"They're letting us in even though we're not able to vote in the election," Dima laughed. "It's great because we both want to hear what Obama has to say. We're interested in the man who might be leading this country very soon."
Further up in line, Jeanice Perez, a junior from Minnesota, paced anxiously, hoping to get her question — about immigration-law reform — answered (note: she did). For her, it was less about curiosity and more about asking Obama a tough question about an issue that directly affected her life.
"My dad was deported back to Mexico, despite the fact that he has a family here in this country," she said. "He was just tossed back over the border, for reasons I still can't understand, so obviously, this is a personal thing for me."
At around 11:50, the line began to move, and after a thorough wanding by security, the students were led into the auditorium in small, wide-eyed groups, ushered to their seats as screamo and hip-hop music blared from rattling speakers. And then, after some 40 minutes of sitting, shifting, reading of questions and last-minute texting, the room erupted when Obama entered.
For the next 60-something minutes, Obama held court in the room, juggling tough questions about gay rights, education reform and the war in Iraq with a couple of less-serious ones (about Stephen Colbert's presidential run and who would play him in a movie based on his life). Everyone looked pretty psyched. But just how did those in the audience think he really did?
"He answered my question — in a way," said Mike Huff, a shaggy-hair freshman who had a rather zesty exchange with Obama about the controversial No Child Left Behind education plan. "I would've preferred if he would've told me he was going to do away with No Child Left Behind, but instead he sort of hinted that he was still going to rely on standardized testing, rather than bring up a whole new way of evaluating students.
"I mean, I understand he had to do a little bit of political dancing, because otherwise he would be turned into someone like [Democratic fringe-runner] Dennis Kucinich," Huff continued. "But he had my support going into this, and I think he did a good job. So f--- yeah, I still support him."
"I'm taking a political-science class this semester, so I've been following him for a bit now, but it was important for me to hear what he had to say," added Marchall Avignon, a fellow freshman. "I'm Democratic and my parents are Republicans — they're aid workers in Haiti — so what he said about foreign aid, and how we need to do it not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it benefits our international standing, I thought that was really great."
Though nearly 300 got seats inside Dows, a whole bunch of Coe students didn't, but that didn't mean they were shut out. The dialogue was broadcast live on a jumbo screen atop a trailer, and a few hundred additional students — plus faculty and staff — got to watch Obama's answers too — some in folding chairs, others sitting on the damp grass (also, they got free hot dogs and Doritos).
And much like the people inside, the majority of students came to watch because they felt like they liked Obama in principle but didn't know much about him in practice.
"I knew he was coming to Coe, but I also knew that there was going to be free food outside, so I decided to watch him out here," said Christopher Severson, a pierced, purple-hair junior from Decorah, Iowa. "But it's really important to hear what he has to say. And I like a lot of what I'm hearing, especially about pulling troops out of Iraq, because that directly affects me and my family.
"My dad spent a year in Iraq, my brother is in the Military Police, and I'm planning on enlisting over Christmas break," he continued. "So the fact that he's got a clear plan, the fact that he's saying it, that's important."
Nearby, sophomore Keli Goddard lay in the grass with her friends, watching Obama answer a question about the Supreme Court. Unlike Severson, her interest in the senator wasn't pressing, but as she put it — and in keeping with the general vibe on the Coe campus all week — she was treating the dialogue as if it were.
"What he says is going to affect us all. And so I think that it's really important for him to come out and voice his opinions, because he needs to convince a lot of students why he's different than [Democratic front-runner] Hillary [Clinton]," she said. "He's adamant about getting out of Iraq, he's got a clear vision. I was leaning towards voting for him before this, but now I'm definitely sure. He did a great job."