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Republicans in spotlight on liberal Boulder campus

BOULDER, Colo. — Student after student at the University of Colorado will happily tell you that they plan to vote for Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. The U.S. senator from Vermont may have commanded a crowd of thousands when he last visited town, but a vocal minority is now getting its day in the sun.

The third Republican presidential debate is set to take place Wednesday on campus, and the influx of conservative politicians into Colorado underscores the swing-state's key role. But even for the few vocal Republicans on campus, the debate's location within the state was unexpected.

"I was quite surprised they would choose such a campus that is so out there with its liberal view," said Ian Andrews, treasurer for CU, Boulder's College Republicans, adding that he commends the party for its decision.

Still, there is no debating which way the Boulder campus leans politically: Campus Democrat leaders told CNBC their events can draw more than 100 volunteers, while the Republican organization's ranks are much lighter.

"Membership in our club has usually been four people — let's be honest," Andrews said. But he said things are starting to look up. "We're sending out emails and we're actually getting replies. It's pretty cool."

CU Boulder College Democrats President Javier Mabrey speaks out at an anti-gun violence on campus on Oct 27, 2015 ahead of the GOP debate.
Everett Rosenfeld | CNBC
CU Boulder College Democrats President Javier Mabrey speaks out at an anti-gun violence on campus on Oct 27, 2015 ahead of the GOP debate.

In fact, Andrews said, it can be hard being a Republican on campus. He said he has felt coming under attack for expressing his opinions.

"Through my own experiences, a lot of people here are very stubborn about their views — very attacking about it," Andrews said. "Not many times here have I had a normal conversation. It always ends with me getting yelled at or being told why what I believe is wrong."

But with the presidential debate sparking renewed interest in conservative ideas, the College Republicans are seeing many more students request to get involved, said the group's president, Paige Slaught.

She likened her own experiences as a conservative on campus to feeling "like the heart of darkness sometimes."

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As for whether the new membership sticks around after the debate, Andrews said he is hoping the campus conservative community can come together a little more.

"You don't have to tell everyone you're a Republican, but you can hang out with us, and we won't yell at you for it," he said.

Given how he has experienced political discourse on campus, Andrews said he was not overly optimistic that Wednesday's debate could mint new Republicans.

"The chances it will change views are low, but there's a chance that the debate could change how (Republicans) are thought of — not some menacing evil party," he said.

Paige Slaught, president of the College Republicans at the University of Colorado, in Boulder.
Jarrett Bellini | CNBC
Paige Slaught, president of the College Republicans at the University of Colorado, in Boulder.

Javier Mabrey, president of the College Democrats on campus, said there's a "zero chance" that the debate converts any students to vote Republican. CU, Boulder, he said, is "pretty locked in as a progressive campus."

"It's not that our campus is close minded, it's that (the GOP candidates) are not talking about what we care about," Mabrey said, listing issues like combating climate change and tightening gun control.

Andrews said he hopes to see candidates address issues that matter to students, like college-loan debt. He also said he'd like to see "less of a (Donald) Trump show." In fact, Slaught and Andrews said they were leaning toward supporting Sen. Marco Rubio.

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Andrews commended Rubio for "trying to stay away from the Trump-ness" of the current field, and for bringing the right level of political experience to the table: "He brings a nice balance of knowing what he's doing, but he's also not a career politician," he said.

Slaught said Trump is "definitely not in the running" for her vote.

As for where the Democrats on campus lean, nearly every student of the more than 20 interviewed by CNBC quickly offered that they expect to vote for Sanders.

"This campus is definitely feeling the Bern," Mabrey said, adding that the "Ready for Hillary" group at the school is no longer active.

Watch CNBC's "Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate" tonight. The debate will feature two sets of candidates discussing critical issues facing America today, including job growth, taxes and the health of our economy. Coverage begins at 5pm E.T.