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Winter break

"Winter break" Continued...

Will Simpson, a 20-year-old sophomore economics and finance major at the University of Arkansas, said he backs Romney because the former Massachusetts governor has more executive experience than his rivals. "His being able to govern right of center in one of the bluest states in America shows his political savvy," he said.

A Baptist who leads a Bible study for Campus Crusade, Simpson said he is not bothered by Romney's Mormon faith. "Even though I wouldn't go to church with him and I have theological quibbles with him, I think his broader worldview and polices are consistent with Christian values," he said, citing Romney's long marriage as evidence.

Simpson added that Romney's fundraising success would allow him to keep pace with the Obama machine while Romney's business experiences will appeal to more independent voters. He scoffed at those who try to tab Romney as a moderate: "Romney was the conservative alternative to [John] McCain in 2008."

Gingrich received a more muted initial reception at CPAC, maybe partly due to his late afternoon slot. But he warmed up the crowd by promising to eliminate federal programs like Obamacare, to reform entitlements, and to audit the Federal Reserve.

The former speaker also took on the Washington establishment for lacking the toughness, commitment and philosophy necessary for building a majority. "This campaign is a mortal threat to their grip on the establishment because we intend to change Washington, not accommodate it," Gingrich said.

Saying the number one fight in the general campaign will be a paycheck president versus a food stamp president, Gingrich also warned that Barack Obama, if reelected, "will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after."

Jessica Schoech, a 20-year-old broadcast journalism and political science major at Wichita State University, roamed the hotels halls holding a "Newt 2012" poster.

Excited to be voting in her first presidential election, Schoech is drawn to Gingrich's passion and grasp on the issues. "We need someone with a backbone in the White House," she said. "If he doesn't agree with Congress he will let them know."

Schoech, a Catholic, said Gingrich's marital infidelities are not costing him her support because he has asked for forgiveness. "For him to admit he had a problem is a big step in making himself a better person," she said. "Too many politicians don't admit they make mistakes."

But Schoech admitted that Gingrich has stumbled of late, adding that he needs to shake off the attacks. "He let Romney get to him," she said.

Despite their passions for different candidates, the college students I talked to agreed on one thing: They all pledged to get behind the last Republican standing next fall.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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