Political wannabes swarm to D.C.

Campuses abuzz with interest in presidential election

October 27, 2004|By David Schoetz | David Schoetz,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Football tailgates, fraternity rush and whispers of homecoming parties in the library stacks: These are the campus events that many adults recall when thinking back on their college days.

But not in this town. And not with this year's presidential election.

For many of the thousands of college students in the Washington area, the main event is politics, and while most experts foresee a spike in college voting nationwide this year, perhaps nowhere is the engagement in the election more pronounced than on campuses in and around the district.

Here, budding politicos, many of whom specifically chose Washington area colleges so they could be at the heart of the 2004 election action, take their pick from a buffet of majors that range from classics like government and political science to more nuanced options like legislative affairs and political management. Extracurricular activities include voter registration drives, debate-watching parties and volunteer work for favored candidates - and, perhaps, future bosses.

These students understand the election issues deeply and on Tuesday - or in absentee ballots already sent back home - they will cast votes for the next president and cast aside the stigma of political apathy often branded on their demographic.

Their Washington ZIP codes provide professors for whom politics is not just an academic subject, but part of their curriculum vitae - like Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who teaches at Georgetown, and any number of talking heads who are often on-call for political analysis on television.

"I want to go after students' assumptions," said American University communications professor Lenny Steinhorn, a speechwriter for the Mondale and Dukakis presidential campaigns. Steinhorn required students to submit an essay explaining why they should be admitted to his honors seminar, "Presidential Campaign 2004: Inside the Warroom and the Newsroom," to ensure a diversity of opinions.

Like the campaigns they study, his course moves quickly. Student pairs brief the class each week on 10 different aspects of the campaign, ranging from the latest views of the chattering class to each candidate's use of the Internet. Rife with buzzwords, they dissect news coverage, persecute pundits and laugh at Will Ferrell's America Coming Together advertisement, a luxury Steinhorn permits, but not without complementing the lampoon with a lecture about the country's path to irreverence.

Issues feed interest

"The youth vote is just going to shock everyone," Steinhorn predicted. He credited the Iraq war for driving the renewed interest among younger voters, particularly if a student had friends "down the block who are going to war." That does not mean President Bush is without college supporters, he added, but that students feel more personally tied to this election than they have in the past.

Carrie Moskal, a junior graphics design major who built a Web site to persuade voters in her home state of West Virginia to vote for Sen. John Kerry, is one of Steinhorn's students. She agreed that both the candidates enjoy loyal followings at American.

"It's just as contested on this campus as it is in the rest of the country," Moskal said. "I've seen so many spur-of-the-moment political debates sprout up. That's a nice thing about American ... the students here are educated and have opinions about political issues."

The same political fervor and candidate fission also exist at George Washington University, where a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the student center to watch the candidates spar during the final presidential debate.

During the closing remarks, Kerry spoke first and the students seated left of center in the food court-turned-studio audience squirmed anxiously in folding chairs as their candidate's image flashed on a massive projection screen. Before he reached the "bless" in his "God bless the United States of America," they exploded into hoots and hollers.

But Bush had the debate's final words, and the camp right of center - identified by powder blue College Republican T-shirts - shushed the left, as did the few undecideds pacing the back of the room. Bedlam followed the president, with the College Republicans and Democrats passionately picking up where the candidates left off.

"It's definitely amped up," event organizer Sean White shouted over the post-debate buzz. "This is a testament to how much people care."

Apathy? What apathy?

White, a junior business and public administration major from Indiana, heads the non-partisan student group GW Votes and spent much of his semester dragging around laptops and a printer and guiding students through the completion of absentee ballot forms. According to White - spotted quietly applauding Bush - 98 percent of the GW student body is registered to vote.

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