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Republicans play to young voters' discontent

/ Source: The Associated Press

The young people in the ad look dissatisfied and pouty. Barack Obama's voice and the words "winning the future," from one of his old campaign speeches, echo in the background.

"You're LOSING my future," says one young man.

The ad — which has aired during sportscasts, reality TV shows and late-night comedy programs popular with younger people — was produced for the College Republican National Committee. It is an attempt to play on the fears that haunt college campuses — fears that they won't find jobs, fears that they'll be living with less than their parents did.

Their fears are, of course, far from exclusive to their generation. But some say the fact that it has taken hold in a voting bloc that helped usher the president into office on a wave of hope and change provides a big opening for Republicans — unless the president can find a way to get them fired up again.

They have much at stake. "People are taking out $100,000 in debt and they're graduating next year," says Nick Haschka, a 25-year-old MBA student at Northwestern University.

Haschka voted for Obama in 2008 and remains a strong supporter. "I think he's doing the best he can in these circumstances," he says.

But he knows others have been less patient. And that's been confirmed by recent polls, which show that young voters' support for the president is waning. That's true even on campuses like Northwestern, one of many where Obamamania began to take hold four years ago, when young voters supported the president by a 2-1 margin.

"I don't really think he can make a difference now," says Charlotte Frei, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Northwestern who's studying transportation engineering. She voted for the president in 2008 and will probably do so again, though she's not very enthusiastic about it.

Others worry that apathy could cause a lot of young voters to sit this one out.

"It's unfortunate — but I think the last election was an exception," says Aubrey Blanche, a senior at Northwestern who'll soon graduate with a degree in journalism and political science and who, like many others, has "no idea" where she'll get a job.

Young Republicans eye an opportunity
Young Republicans see an opportunity.

Even at the University of Chicago, a short walk from the Obamas' home in Hyde Park, members of the small local chapter of College Republicans are feeling empowered to engage students in conversation as the fall term begins.

"The jobs issue is a major accelerant," says Jacob Rabinowitz, a sophomore who is the group's vice president.

Meanwhile, in a recruiting video, Zach Howell, the outgoing chairman of the national College Republican group, says his party offers "real change" and "hope," playing off the themes of Obama's last campaign.

The group's ads are edgy and catchy — and a good start, says political scientist Richard Niemi.

"Throwing back a candidate's words at him or her is a tried-and-true method," says Niemi, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York. "But you've got to have the candidate to go with it."

That's where it gets tricky for Republicans, since young voters have traditionally leaned heavily Democratic.

So far, in this race, Ron Paul, a Republican with libertarian leanings, is among those with a small but loyal legion of young followers. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, also has attempted to make a play for young supporters, calling them "Generation H."

Jacob Engels — a 19-year-old business student at Valencia College in Florida who is a delegate in the Republican straw poll later this month — is a Huntsman supporter. Though Huntsman hasn't made a strong showing in early polls, Engels calls him the "pragmatic choice" because he's less conservative on issues such as the environment and gay marriage.

That would make Huntsman more palatable to his college peers, he says.

"I just don't think you can get away with the Bachmann craziness and the Perry stuff," Engels says of two presidential candidates — Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry — who lean more to the right on social issues.

Bachmann, a Republican member of Congress from Minnesota, and Perry, the governor of Texas, are, in fact, names that tend to stir up college Democrats — and not necessarily in a good way.

"If Perry ran, I'd definitely vote against him," says Frei, the Northwestern Ph.D student.

Of course, that's good for Obama, says Larry Berman, a political science professor at Georgia State University. But, he says the president also needs to find ways to inspire young people to vote FOR him, not just against his opponent, whoever that turns out to be.

He says the president might, for instance, find a new role for Vice President Joe Biden and choose a new running mate that would appeal more to the younger crowd.

The president also is likely to make more appearances on college campuses, as he did when he recently took his jobs plan to the campus of Ohio State University.

"He can't win Ohio and other key swing states without a dramatic turnout of young voters," Berman says.

Perhaps most important, "I think he's got to fight," Berman says. He suggests a re-election campaign speech like the one President Franklin D. Roosevelt made in 1936 in which he said of his detractors, "I welcome their hatred."

That kind of passion would appeal to college students, among others, he says.

Either way, Meredith Segal, who helped found and run Students for Obama during the last presidential election, says it's far too early to discount young voters.

No, their response to Obama won't be the same as it was in the 2008 campaign, she says.

"Inevitably there is a difference between something that is brand new vs. a known quantity," says Segal, who's 25 and now director of student and family services at a new urban charter school outside Boston. "It's always virtually impossible to recapture the newness and energy of a candidate who is being discovered for the first time."

But she adds: "This generation still has the potential to have a huge impact — not just in the election but on their campuses, in their towns, their cities and their country."