WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, 9:56 a.m. — “These teams in the WAC conference, you get one team like Boise beating Utah and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Let us play for a national championship.’ Then you put a team like Hawaii up against Georgia, you say, ‘Here you go, try playing a BCS against an SEC team and watch what happens.’”

Believe it or not, we’re talking politics with University of Iowa College Republicans President Greg Baker. Greg is a junior at the U — a polisci/history double major and one of the nicest guys we’ve met on the campaign trail. It doesn’t take much to change gears from Mitt Romney’s suburban support into a a full-fledged debate about the merits of Iowa football.

As much as he loves football, the game of politics is really Baker’s first love. He’s lived in Earlham (pronounced earl-um), Iowa, his whole life, but he’ll go back to Iowa City on Thursday night to make his voice heard in his first-ever Republican caucus.

Four years ago, Baker stood in a gymnasium in Earlham in Democratic Missouri Congressman Dick Gephhardt’s corner.

“I wanted to see what the caucus process was all about,” the Republican explains of his decision to attend the Democratic caucus. In 2004, with George W. Bush’s running for re-election, there was no Republican caucus in Iowa.

This year, Baker’s on the fence.

“I like Huckabee, Romney and McCain. I’ll probably go with whichever one I see last,” he says. “My heart says Huckabee, but you vote with your heart at the straw poll. At the caucus, you vote with your mind. This is going to be a tough year for Republican candidates. We need to have the perfect candidate.”

Opinions about just who that candidate is differ from one section of Iowa to the next. Just as Ames is Cyclone country and you’d be shot dead for wearing red and gold in Iowa City, each candidate’s support — much like a football team’s — tends to vary by region. Obama has the college kids around Iowa City and Ames. Des Moines — and pretty much only Des Moines — is Hillary country, whereas Edwards has the rural counties. On the Republican side, Baker says a drive out past the outlying West Des Moines suburbs will take you through a sea of Mitt Romney signs before dumping you firmly in Mike Huckabee territory.

“There are no moderates in Iowa,” he says. “We’re a swing state because the western half is really conservative and the eastern half is really liberal.”

Nevertheless, Baker says the demographics — and the politics — of the state are shifting. As rural populations and manufacturing economies decline across the state, trends are leading to higher populations in service-economy magnets like Des Moines and Iowa City, traditionally liberal strongholds. Not so fast, Baker says, because the new Iowans moving into the suburbs are Republicans, but “a different kind of Republican.”

While the political aftershocks of such trends will take years to play out, Baker says increased youth participation will likely spell immediate, visible changes in this year’s primary. But even the youth vote breaks down along demographic — and geographic — lines.

Democratic students from Illinois — who Baker says comprise nearly 30 percent of the University of Iowa’s population — swing heavily for Obama. Their Republican counterparts like Giuliani, even though his support lags nearly everywhere else across the state. Law and business students prefer Mitt Romney. College students in the rural counties tend to swing in line with a sort of geographic peer pressure, backing Huckabee, who’s conservative song plays well to the rural Republican base. And who knows about students in Sioux City, usually the toughest city to call in Iowa politics? They may even follow popular Congressman Steve King’s lead and caucus for Fred Thompson.

Like any good football game, this caucus has seen leads traded back and forth among the frontrunners — Republican and Democratic. Will Huckabee’s late surge carry him across the line? Can McCain make an endzone run for second place? What happens to Romney in New Hampshire if he doesn’t meet expectations here?

“No one has their mind made up yet,” Baker says of Iowa voters. “What happens is you’ve got about four guys that you like, and it comes down to who saw who last.”

-Zack Abrahamson