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January 24, 2016

Neil Levesque directs the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. The small liberal arts college has hosted every presidential candidate since Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

Most years, Saint Anselm College is just another private religious college in New England. But every four years, come presidential primary season, this mid-level liberal arts school punches well above its weight.

"This is the hub of politics in a state that really celebrates politics as its state sport," says Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at St. A’s.

The college has hosted every single presidential candidate since Eisenhower in 1952.

"We have more presidential campaign activity in this building than any other building in the United States,” says Levesque as he gives us a tour of the institute.

Senator John F. Kennedy, at Saint Anselm College in 1960, holding a student newspaper.  (Courtesy of St. Anselm College)

Most of the presidential debates in New Hampshire take place on campus and candidates frequently hold events here to meet voters. That activity leads to some memorable political moments, including the 2011 flub by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

"Those of you that will be 21 by November the 12th, I ask for your support. Those of you who won't, just work hard," said Perry, misidentifying the legal voting age.

Then there was the televised Democratic debate, when Hillary Clinton answered a question about whether she had the appeal to defeat a surging Senator Barack Obama.

"What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see your resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more” asked the moderator. "Well that hurts my feelings, but I'll try to go on," Clinton joked. "He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad” Clinton added. 

 "You're likable enough," responded Obama.

For a small liberal arts college with a high acceptance rate, the glare of the national spotlight results in more applications. St. A's has seen a 10 percent bump in the past year and a nearly 50 percent increase in campus visits over two years.

On campus, many students say they chose St. A's because of its profile in presidential politics.

"It was the closest thing that I could get to the White House. It’s just so cool. You’re right up close to history," said first-year student Lauren Batchelder.

The 18-year-old is from Chester, New Hampshire. Like many of her classmates, she’s feeling the Bern. But as a longtime political junky, this Bernie Sanders supporter is simply giddy about meeting all the candidates.

"I’ve been doing that since I was in first grade- just going to try to meet every single candidate that I could. I was pulled out of class in first grade cause I really wanted to meet George Bush. This is a dream. First-grade Lauren would just cry being here. It’s awesome," she said.

Listen: Saint Anselm College President Steven DiSalvo on spending time with candidates when the cameras are off

Lauren says all this political action creates a certain buzz on this otherwise sleepy Catholic campus.

“Even the monks get excited. One monk went up to me and was like ‘Did you know that a candidate is here today? You should go see him.’ And I was like ‘OK I will!’"

Lauren may seem overly jazzed, but fellow student Brian Pickowicz, who identifies as Independent, says the average St. A's student is more politically engaged than the average student at other schools.

"Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were here a couple weeks ago and we had down time - about an hour off - and what I said to [my roommate] was, ‘Well most people in college, they’ll take a nap during this time. We’re gonna go meet a presidential candidate.’ And I remember I told Jeb Bush he should come out to a party with us. He thought that was kinda funny. He passed. He said, 'If I didn’t have to drive, I would.'"

Students of all political stripes suggest these personal interactions - when the cameras are off - serve as a remedy for political polarization. And both liberals and conservatives see Saint A's as a sort of safe haven where they can meet the candidates, and rise above the fray.

Earlier: Tuition Impossible: Politicians Call for Debt-Free College 

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