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It's still very early in the Democratic presidential primary process; some likely candidates haven't even announced their running yet. But voters in states like Iowa that have early primaries and caucuses have already gotten an up-close look at a lot of the candidates who are in the race. NPR's Tamara Keith sat down with a group of students at The University of Iowa to get a sense of what issues matter most to them and which candidates are making a good impression.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In the state that will make the first cut in the very large, historically diverse Democratic field, the nine students I met with take their responsibility seriously.
ALLISON MEYER: Hi, I'm Allison Meyer.
DANIELLE BEAVERS: Hi, I'm Danielle Beavers.
LAURYN SCHNACK: I'm Lauryn Schnack.
JENNA NELSON: Jenna Nelson.
ELLA DANIELS: I'm Ella Daniels.
GRACIE MAHONEY: Gracie Mahoney.
ANNA VAN HEUKELOM: I'm Anna Van Heukelom.
SARAH SCHOTT: My name is Sarah Schott.
JOHNNY MOLONEY: I'm Johnny Moloney.
KEITH: They range in age from 18 to 22, and all of them plan to caucus for Democrats next winter. Because they're in Iowa City, candidates come through all the time, says Daniels.
DANIELS: I didn't grow up in a super political environment, and then so coming here, with all the candidates that come through Iowa City, it's a lot of opportunity. It's really cool to see.
KEITH: Though Schnack says they can get jaded about all the attention.
SCHNACK: And when we see, oh, a candidate's coming; oh, but I am slightly busy that day, so I'll just wait because they'll be back.
KEITH: Having a few selfies with candidates on your cellphone is the norm for this group. Like many Democrats, President Trump is on their minds. In particular, Moloney says...
MOLONEY: The most important quality is just someone who's going to be able to beat Donald Trump (laughter).
KEITH: But what does that mean? Moloney suggests it needs to be someone who can stand up to Trump in debates. Meyer offers this.
MEYER: I'd say, honestly, the quality I'm looking for most is authenticity.
KEITH: Schott says she wants someone who represents her generation.
SCHOTT: I think that Donald Trump tapped into a lot of, like, old-people fear, and that was, like, a big base of his campaign and how he won. And I think that our generation is the generation that's going to be able to overcome that and work past fear as, like, a nation.
KEITH: They have a lot of ideas about who they want - someone who cares passionately about income inequality, someone who's in it for the greater good. Beavers is looking for someone who contrasts with President Trump's narrow focus on his base.
BEAVERS: When you are representing the entirety of the United States, which is supposed to be an open place for people of all different backgrounds, I think that you need to be super respectful. So I am looking for that in a candidate. So looking for women candidates or minorities is important to me, too.
KEITH: Or maybe this, says Nelson.
NELSON: I am kind of also looking for a candidate that will have qualities that can also be attractive to people on, like, the more moderate or right sides of the spectrum because, ultimately, you have to get the votes to win.
KEITH: Five of the nine say they donated to Bernie Sanders in 2016, just a few dollars, in a couple of cases, to get a sticker. But this time is different. Even though Sanders is near the top in most polls, only one of these young Iowans says she might caucus for him. Mahoney says last time, Sanders was the best of an uninspiring field.
MAHONEY: In 2016, it was really more of a function of - I supported him over Hillary - and who was the guy from Maryland? Like, yeah.
KEITH: Martin O'Malley.
MAHONEY: Martin O'Malley. Yeah, like, when that was my choice, yeah, sure, I supported Bernie, but this year it's different.
KEITH: But this time, Schott says there are a lot of other options, and she worries Sanders, who she was a fan of four years ago, is just going to rob support from candidates who she thinks have a better chance of winning.
SCHOTT: I just don't think that this is his campaign. All the candidates have very similar values but I think can go a lot farther with them than he can.
KEITH: As for the issues, the environment and climate change are high on the list; mass incarceration, LGBT rights and gun control rank, too. So who do they like? Van Heukelom is exploring a summer internship with Cory Booker.
VAN HEUKELOM: I went and saw him speak. He's really personable, and I think that he's really passionate, and he knows what he cares about.
KEITH: Mahoney followed Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign.
MAHONEY: When he was campaigning for senator, he went to 252 counties in Texas. That's, like, a big deal, and he did it twice. He might be a little young, but he's in the spirit of compromise, and I really appreciate that.
KEITH: As our conversation goes on, it becomes clear the women candidates are barely getting a mention, even though there are half a dozen in the race. Moloney says he's following with interest Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind.
MOLONEY: He's been pretty good. He's - I forget what he said for his CNN town hall. It was like, I have more governing experience than the vice president, I have more military experience than anybody in Congress, and I have - there's another thing he said; I don't remember. And also that he's not super old, which is good.
KEITH: The debates are still months away, but I had to ask.
If you were caucusing today, who would you caucus for?
VAN HEUKELOM: Cory Booker.
KEITH: One each for Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, and four for the former congressman from Texas, Beto O'Rourke. Though none of these voters say they're fully locked in yet.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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