WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, Republican confidence about presidential politics was hinged on two facts:
States with the fastest-growing populations were Republican and those with declining populations were largely Democratic. And younger voters, those voting for the first time or those coming of age in the Reagan era, wanted to keep a Republican in the White House.
That latter trend appears to be reversing itself in this election year, as numerous polls indicate that 18-to-29-year-old voters, troubled by the slumping economy, are forsaking their Republican loyalties.
"For the last 12 years, younger voters have been the strength of the Republican coalition at the national level," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall, whose research indicates a significant defection among that group from the Republican camp.
"First and foremost, it's driven by the economy," she said. "Younger voters feel personally that they are no longer going to be able to attain what they hoped to attain in their economic futures."
Four years ago, TV network exit polls gave President Bush a healthy 6-point advantage over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis among 18-to-29-year-olds, continuing a pattern begun by Ronald Reagan in two previous elections. In 1984, Mr. Reagan held nearly a 20-percentage-point advantage over Democrat Walter Mondale with the 18-to-29-year-old set.
Nationally, 18-to-29-year-olds accounted for 22 percent of the vote in 1988. At the time, GOP pollster Robert Teeter -- now Mr. Bush's campaign director -- talked of a political realignment built on the loyalty of younger voters.
If Mr. Bush could sew up the youngest voters, Mr. Teeter argued, "you are going to see Republican pluralities dominate for most of the rest of our lifetimes."
Now, 37 days before the general election, there is little talk of any permanent shift in voting patterns. A host of national polls indicate that since the Democratic National Convention in July, the youngest voters have moved toward the Democratic ticket, although many of them stopped to examine Ross Perot's candidacy at the height of the Texan's popularity.
An MTV poll of 1,006 18-to-29-year-old potential voters surveyed Sept. 20-24 showed Mr. Clinton leading with 54 percent to 30 percent for Mr. Bush. Recent polls by CBS News, Times-Mirror, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal offer similar results.
And the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated that the two age groups most solidly in the Democratic presidential column are 18-to-24-year-olds and voters who are 60 and older.
Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who served briefly as an adviser to Mr. Perot, thinks the Republican dream of a generational realignment is dashed.
"The Republican Party is in danger of losing those younger voters who came of age in the feel-good period of the 1984 Olympics," Mr. Rollins said at the Republican National Convention.
"If we lose the under-35 voter, this election could turn out to be a romp."
Mr. Rollins thinks his party erred by taking the fealty of younger voters for granted.
"They thought, 'This is wonderful; they're going to be with us forever,'" he said.
Democratic strategists think the presumptive move of younger voters toward the Clinton-Gore ticket is based on more than economic dissatisfaction, and some Republicans share that view.
Analysts in both parties think that while younger voters are fiscally conservative, they generally are more liberal on social issues like abortion rights and the environment.
GOP pollster Ms. DiVall thinks that Republican positions on a number of these issues -- abortion in particular -- have alienated younger voters, and that the party's approach to the family-values issue, as framed in the Republican convention, pushed some voters toward the Democrats.
Against that backdrop, the 46-year-old Mr. Clinton has wooed the twentysomething crowd, making himself available to MTV -- Mr. Bush passed on the invitation -- playing the saxophone for late-night TV host Arsenio Hall and jogging in his "Rock the Vote" T-shirt, a nod to the national voter-registration drive sponsored by the recording industry.
The Democrat and his 44-year-old running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, have stumped on a host of college campuses, as have Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore.
Mr. Clinton's selection of a fellow Southerner as a running mate broke with established notions of regional and ideological balance on the ticket, but it seems to have paid generational dividends, in part because of their respective ages and in part because of Mr. Gore's identification with the environmental movement.
Recently, Mr. Clinton's face turned up on the cover of the back-to-college issue of Rolling Stone.
The music-and-pop-culture oriented magazine offered a luminous endorsement of the Arkansas governor along with hipper-than-thou assessments from authors Hunter Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke.
Republican hopes for reconnecting with younger voters are waning, in large measure because the promise of an imminent economic recovery is not being heard as the election approaches.
"Commitments to both candidates are weak and it's possible younger voters may begin to remember what they liked about the Republican Party," Ms. DiVall said. "That's an effective foreign policy approach and management of the economy."