Presidential primaries capture college students’ attention

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — At the University of Richmond, more than 200 curious students crammed into the student commons this weekend to hear actor Kal Penn and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s son Nat speak passionately about Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid.

At the University of Maryland, members of the Young Democrats marched from dorm room to dorm room encouraging students to vote Tuesday.

In Washington, D.C., students at American University have been riding buses from New Hampshire to Florida to offer help to campaigns.

At college campuses across the Mid-Atlantic region, the rare opportunity to have an impact on the presidential race — particularly on the Democratic side — has amplified the level of excitement already present among many students ahead of Tuesday’s primaries.

“People are energized,” said Jonathan Sachs, president for the Young Democrats at the University of Maryland, where Republican candidate Mike Huckabee had an event Saturday, and where Obama will speak Monday. “There’s a buzz when our rival Duke is playing Maryland. But this is much bigger than that.”

In Virginia, 22,518 people under the age of 25 registered to vote during the first two weeks of January before the primary registration deadline. That was slightly more than 60 percent of total new registrants.

The Maryland State Board of Elections processed 28,048 new registered voters in January before the deadline, 16,419 of them between 17 and 24, and nearly 60 percent of the total. Washington, D.C., registered 778 new voters for the same age group, representing about 35 percent of January registrants.

“Young voters have shown unusual interest in the ’08 election so far, and the same phenomenon appears to be true for the Potomac primary,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “In my four decades of association with college campuses, I have rarely seen this level of engagement in politics at the university level.”

Young mid-Atlantic voters, like their counterparts across the U.S., have largely rallied around Obama, Sabato said.

“He’s offered a vision of politics different from something we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” said Adam Keith, 22, the leader of the 200-member “Students for Obama” group at U.Va. “It has been amazing to see people rally around this campaign.”

Keith traveled to Iowa to help Obama’s campaign. Other students have posted campaign signs around campus and tirelessly worked phone banks encouraging people to vote for their candidate.

“There is no question that we’re the ones getting on the ground,” said junior Will Haun, 21, president of American University’s College Republicans. “We have more at stake in this than any other age group. We have an opportunity to shape the world we’ll be making decisions for.”

Campaigns have reached out to young voters through Facebook, YouTube and MySpace on the Internet. Student groups supporting candidates have organized rallies through Facebook and old-fashioned flyers. They’re communicating through massive e-mail lists and posting campaign signs on dorm room doors and windows.

At U.Va., where Sen. Hillary Clinton is expected to appear Monday, student political groups have done presentations to explain the nominating process to fellow students, said junior Sarah Buckley, 21, president of the university’s Young Democrats.

“Having this historical moment — a black man and a woman — has really excited a lot of people,” she said. “We all thought this wouldn’t matter by now. But we’re in it for the long haul.”

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