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Small school plays big role in New Hampshire politics

Story Highlights

• Saint Anselm College will host Republican and Democrat debates in June
• School's location makes it attractive for candidates ahead of first primary
• School official: The college has history of being involved in national, local politics
By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- A small Catholic college in New Hampshire is about to take center stage for presidential candidates hoping to woo voters during next month's presidential debates.

Already, the 2,000 students who attend Saint Anselm College are tripping over the presidential candidates as they make their way to classes.

"It is not even a little unlikely that a student at this college would meet the next president of the United States, not once, but as many as three or four times in an election cycle," said Anne Botteri, executive director of the school's New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "And that's a pretty exciting thing if you think about it."

The college is about 10 minutes from the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city, making it an attractive destination for candidates hoping to make a name for themselves in the nation's first 2008 presidential primary.

"My philosophy is if they want to come, say yes," Botteri said. "There are some weeks where we are literally doing things every day, or multiple candidates on the same day at different locations."

Botteri said that Saint Anselm has always been involved in the New Hampshire primary, along with other state and local races.

"The college is really, genuinely committed to rolling out the red carpet and having an all hands on deck mentality here for staff and faculty to welcome this," she said.

CNN is sponsoring the debate, along with WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper.

The Democrats will debate on June 3 and Republican hopefuls will square off on June 5.

Jane Maxwell, senior vice president CNN Special Events, said the network and its partners chose Saint Anselm partly because of its strong interest in the political process.

"They're very enthusiastic, they have ample facilities. It's in Manchester, which obviously is where we want to have it. The campus is lovely," she said.

This year's debates are to be held at the Sullivan Arena, a 2,700 seat facility that is home to the Saint Anselm men's and women's hockey teams.

Maxwell said it would take five or six days to convert the facility into a debate hall.

"We're transforming it, so it gives us a blank canvas from which you can build upwards and custom build what you want instead of being confined to a proscenium style stage and typical Broadway theater-style seating," she said.

Maxwell said CNN has been planning the debates for about six months. When asked what still needed to be done she said "pretty much everything."

"Right now it's all on paper. It's not built, it's not reality yet. It's not reality until you get there," she said.

Botteri said many students have offered to help.

"We've got a list of about a hundred students who have said, 'If I can do anything for this debate, if I can usher, carry hot dogs, help people park their cars, help candidates in the green rooms, tell CNN to put me on the list and I'll do it.' "

School officials say Saint Anselm has always been involved in the New Hampshire primary.

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