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Presidential campaigns expecting young voters to swing 2004 election

By Carl Weiser | Gannett News Service

CINCINNATI — James Fain is a wanted man.

Who wants this 26-year-old, eating lunch at a Cuban restaurant in Cincinnati’s hip Over-the-Rhine neighborhood? Ten presidential candidates, who say they are making unprecedented efforts to woo young voters.

"The youth vote is poised to be the swing vote for 2004," said Michael Whitney, spokesman for Generation Dean, the well-organized youth wing of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign. "The way we can get them to our side is simply by speaking to them."

Tuesday, the nine Democrats will speak directly to twentysomethings in a nationally televised town hall meeting sponsored by Rock the Vote and CNN. Campaigns have been organizing young voters via coffee- and beer-fueled "meet-ups" organized on the Web, campus rallies, even last month holding “house parties for Dean.”

It's part of an effort to reach what the Youth Vote Coalition calls a gold mine of votes.

"While security moms and NASCAR dads attract time and resources, another powerful voting bloc lies untapped," the coalition wrote in a pamphlet mailed this month to 600 political consultants.

Voters 18 to 30 years old account for a quarter of the voting-age population even though in recent elections the turnout of young voters has been somewhere between discouraging and dismal.

Neither Fain, a waiter, nor friend Susy Ruiz, 21, has decided which candidate to support. But both agree that young voters are more energized than ever to decide next year's presidential race.

"Young people want to see movement," said Ruiz, who knows only that she won't be supporting President Bush.

"I think with our generation, there's a lot of emphasis on working to improve your community, however big or small you see that community as being," said Matt Byrne, a senior at Xavier University and co-chairman of the Ohio College Republicans. "If that idea is there, they're always interested in politics in some way."

Young Americans actually are more supportive of President Bush than their older counterparts, according to a USA TODAY-CNN-Gallup Poll taken in October. They're more likely to support the Iraq war, more trusting of Washington — and less likely to follow political news.

A separate study from the Harvard University Institute of Politics released in October documented a reawakening of political interest on college campuses. The organization surveyed 1,202 students, primarily 18- to 24-year-olds, on campuses across the nation.

In an earlier Harvard poll taken in April 2000, 51 percent said political involvement rarely produced tangible results. In the latest poll, only 34 percent agreed with that statement. The poll also found that college voters are more likely than the general population to support President Bush and that a majority of students supported the war in Iraq.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, more students say they will vote, that politics is meaningful, that their vote matters, said Dan Glickman, a former Kansas congressman and secretary of agriculture who now heads the Harvard Institute of Politics.

Young voters tend to identify less with party, and that makes them a target of both sides — if the campaigns are smart — Glickman said.

"You're talking 15 (million) to 20 million people. That's enough to influence elections,” he said. “Neglect this group at your peril."

The candidates are changing the way they campaign to appeal to young voters, said Alexis Tameron, 27, of Mesa, Ariz. The president of the Young Democrats of Arizona said candidates and their representatives are spending more time listening than talking, having conversations rather than giving stump speeches.

“These people feel like they’re being heard, instead of campaigns hitting people smack in the face,” Tameron said. And young voters are figuring out that, whether the issue is the economy or Iraq, politics can affect their lives directly.

At New Jersey’s Rutgers University, students galvanized by rising tuition rates began registering in droves — 18,000 during a four-week registration drive.

No one has done a better job at energizing the young than Dean, whose anti-war message resonated with college students even though the Harvard poll showed most students supported the war.

Young voters tend to appreciate authenticity, outspokenness and general "realness" in a candidate, according to interviews and surveys.

"I think people realize politicians equivocate all the time. It’s a rare thing when you find a politician who doesn’t," said Niroshan Wijesooriya, 30, a University of Cincinnati law student eating lunch at an Over-the-Rhine pizzeria. Dean, he said, "is out there saying, 'This is what I believe in.' "

Even other politicians are attracted to that. The youngest Democrat in Congress, 30-year-old Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, endorsed Dean in October, saying: "His message is honest. And I find that refreshing in the political arena."

The Bush-Cheney campaign is starting its youth outreach eight months earlier than in 2000, campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said. It’s building a national Students for Bush organization, putting students on the 15- to 25-member committees that will run the campaign in every state, even creating a new fund-raiser category, called Mavericks, for people younger than 40 who can raise $50,000 for the campaign. It plans to launch a youth-oriented campaign Web page as well, he said.

"This sector of the electorate — they're energetic; they're focused,” Madden said. “They serve as wonderful ground troops during the campaign."

If there's one key to getting young voters involved, it's giving them something to do, said John Cranley, a 29-year-old Cincinnati city councilman. Give them real work and put them with other young people.

"A big part of it is social," he said. After all, most college students and many twentysomethings are single. Byrne of the College Republicans met his girlfriend through the GOP. The Young Voter Coalition will be putting together debate-watching parties for the Rock The Vote-CNN forum Tuesday.

But many young voters, even those angry about the Iraq war, still end up outside the political process looking in.

Katie Freshley, a 21-year-old waitress at a Cincinnati coffee house, calls Bush a “warmongering, bloodthirsty, racist, homophobic person who should not be in office.”

But she can't name any of the Democrats running against him.

"Scary, huh," she said. "I'm very undecided."