NEW YORK - "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," as Yogi Berra once said. Nevertheless, an intriguing glimpse at the next generation of GOP leadership could be found this week on the streets and in the saloons of midtown Manhattan during the Republican National Convention.
At one elegant spot, optimistically called the Windfall Bar and Grill, the state chairmen of the College Republican National Committee held a happy-hour gathering with no less of a featured attraction than one of their own alumni, Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist.
Yes, a mere three decades ago, the crafty wizard sometimes called "Bush's Brain" was this group's executive director and was bitterly fighting a pitched battle for the chairmanship. The 1973 contest was so divisive that Republican National Committee chair George H. W. Bush stepped in to settle the matter, and he concluded that Mr. Rove had won fairly.
Other former College Republicans include Lee Atwater, who went on to help the elder Mr. Bush become the nation's 41st president, and political consultant Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition.
The Windfall Bar and Grill crowd was a mostly white, male and iridescently clean-cut group.
Outside, motley chanting protesters crowded the streets. Inside, serious young Republicans plotted their futures.
"Wealth is too important to be left to limousine liberals," Mr. Rove said to enthusiastic applause, although, as one who covered the Democratic National Convention in Boston, I think the GOP still holds the lead in limos. Yacht parties too.
Mr. Rove encouraged the young adults to register to vote and turn out new voters for President Bush, especially in battleground states where Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, are neck and neck. To a young Republican from Massachusetts, Mr. Kerry's home state, Mr. Rove said the Bush campaign team will "be waving to you as we fly over."
Focusing on the battleground states is fine with Eric Hoplin, 26, chairman of the College Republican National Committee and a bona fide star on the rise. In July 2003, he became the first person since Mr. Rove to ascend from executive director to chairman of the group, and he's just getting started. The organization has increased its membership roster over the past three years to 120,000 people on more than 1,000 college campuses across America.
After Mr. Rove's departure, Mr. Hoplin, a 2001 graduate of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, described how far the organization has come since Mr. Rove's day when the group operated as an arm of the Republican National Committee, which gave it an annual budget of $100,000. Following new federal campaign finance rules, the College Republicans split from the national party. Now a separate entity, its current fund-raising goal of $10 million is earmarked to turn out 125,000 or more young voters for Mr. Bush in the battleground states.
Right-wingers? Moderates? Mr. Hoplin doesn't let ideological purity get in the way of the organization's growth. He said, "I tell our members that if the person they're talking to agrees with 51 percent of what we stand for, that's enough. Sign 'em up."
Young Democrats say they are not relaxing either. Grant Woodard, a junior at Grinnell College in Iowa and head of the College Democrats of America, told the Associated Press that his group is dispatching thousands of young Democrats from safe states to work for Mr. Kerry in swing states.
If ever there was a year for the youth vote to wake up, this is it. There's a war on. Both parties usually ignore the under-30 crowd because the group is so much harder to motivate than older folks. Yet, when Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign aggressively pursued the campus vote, the strategy reaped the highest young-voter turnout since 18-year-olds received the right to vote in the early 1970s.
And during the 1992 elections, Mr. Rove taught the world another lesson when he helped Republicans organize "GOTV" - get out the vote - efforts that had long been a Democratic specialty.
This year, groups such as the College Republican National Committee could make the difference in a close election. And as much as they may pride themselves on being the antithesis of the anti-Bush protesters out on the midtown streets, I hope these young folks do not let their youth get away without realizing that politics is more than just winning; it's about believing in something.
Otherwise, they risk becoming cynical young fogies. If that happens, what will they have to look forward to when they get old?
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.