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Youth: We will vote. Really

By Don Davis

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Young faces were plentiful at the Pepsi Center in Denver as the Democratic National Convention kicked off Monday.

Of course, there is nothing unusual about youths attending a political convention. The catch politicians find is that beyond a few youthful activists, young Americans tend not to vote, even in the nation-leading turnout state of Minnesota.

Young leaders at the Denver convention say 2008 will be different, thanks to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who this week receives his party's nomination.

"I was really inspired by his candidacy and the effects of his candidacy on everyday people and everyday students," said Ashleigh Leitch, an alternate delegate from Willmar.

Douglas Williams, a University of Minnesota Morris student, said he is a delegate only because young people were involved in the caucuses. A dozen people usually attend his precinct caucus, but more than 100 were there this year, many of them youths.

"The youth always say they are going to show up to vote," Williams said. "I am living, walking proof of what happens when they show up."

Attending caucuses is more difficult than just casting a ballot, which Williams uses as proof that election officials can expect an influx of young voters.

As president of the Morris student DFL chapter, Williams said, "we are going to make it very clear to the youth that his election is very important. ... This election is very wide open."

A skeptic would file comments like that along side promises young political leaders have made for decades. But Leitch and others say they have evidence showing such claims are not mere wishful thinking.

"From our past (caucus) election results, you can see we have already have gotten out of this," Leitch said of the young-voter apathy trend.

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party caucuses early this year hosted three times the number of people as normal.

"If we got that kind of turnout early on, it will even get better," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. "They are looking at the future and they want someone who is going to do something about the future."

The Denver convention includes quite a few events for young delegates and alternates. But nominating 47-year-old Obama is their main goal.

Not just Democratic youth are involved this year, Bethany Dorobiala of Woodbury said.

She is president of the Minnesota College Republicans and will be an alternate delegate to next week's Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities.

"The youth really support the Republican Party," she said, because young voters want a tested president.

"Something people can realize is that Barack Obama is not experienced enough to lead us," the University of Minnesota student said. "I think it is really going to come down to the college campuses this election. It is the battleground of ideas."

Like Democrats, Dorobiala said that Republican youth groups "have seen the biggest surge of youth support in history."

Leitch, who will be a senior at the College of St. Benedict, and is co-chairwoman of her college Democratic organization, said some students are concerned that GOP candidate John McCain does not use the Internet, send text messages or engage in other technologically advanced activities.

"I know it has an effect on me," she said, quickly adding that such things are second nature to her. A president should know how to use the Internet, she said.

UMMDorobiala said using the Internet "may not be something he personally does," but a president needs to focus on important things such as creating jobs for young Americans.

Delegate Andrew Falk of Murdock, 25, who is running for the Minnesota House, said his generation has a bad voting reputation. But like others, he expects a better record this year.

"I think this year will be different," Falk said. "I think youth are excited."

Super delegate Nancy Larson of Dassel, a Democratic National Committee member, compared Obama's attraction to youth to that of President John F. Kennedy.

"McCain is not going to stir the young people up," Larson said. "John Kerry did not stir the young people up. George W. Bush did not stir the young people up. Years ago, John F. Kennedy stirred a lot of people up."

State Capitol Bureau reporters are blogging about the Democratic and Republican national conventions at the Web site