PITTSBURGH – Democrat John Kerry, with rockers Jon Bon Jovi and Blink-182 in tow, is courting the college crowd that typically shuns the voting booth, hoping unease about the Iraq war and jobs propels millions of 18-to-24-year-olds to the polls in November.
"We need you to become involved in this race as never before," the presumptive Democratic nominee implored a noisy crowd of more than 5,000 at the University of Pittsburgh Friday.
The rally was Kerry's fifth college appearance in a week and reflected the campaign's sense that a new activism is brewing on campuses nationwide, fueled by opposition to the war, concerns about postgraduate jobs and Republican-led efforts to curtail gay rights and change long-standing environmental rules.
Kerry dedicates his speeches to those issues, as well as college tuition and public service, while bringing along familiar musicians and sports legends. The Boston band Guster played at one event; famed Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris and Bon Jovi joined Kerry on Friday.
The candidate recently held a conference call with college newspaper editors and the campaign has established voter registration booths on more than 40 campuses. Based on recent history, however, any presidential candidate faces a daunting task in wooing students.
Apathy toward the political process has grown in the past three decades among young voters. In the 2000 election, one of the closest in history, just 29 percent of eligible voters ages 18-24 — about 8.4 million — cast a ballot for president. Overall, 55 percent of all eligible voters participated.
By contrast, slightly more than 45 percent of 21-to-24-year-olds voted in November 1968 when a military draft was sending young men to war in Southeast Asia.
"The thing about this generation is, we're not stupid, we're just lazy," said Greg Heller-LaBelle, 21, the editor in chief of The Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh. "If you could vote online, I think you'd see that number skyrocket."
Young people don't vote in large numbers because they are largely ignored by politicians, said Courtney Hickson, 22, editor in chief of the University of Connecticut's Daily Campus.
"I think they want to be courted," Hickson said. "You can't court an 18- to 25-year-old in the same way you court a 30-year-old or a 40-year-old. We have very different ideas, we have very different tastes than the generations that are ahead of us."
The key to motivating young people who aren't politically active may be as simple as asking what they think, Heller-LaBelle said. Raised on the Internet, instant messages and cell phones, they respond to personal communication rather than mass media, he said.
"The thing to do if you are a candidate? Walk through a cafeteria. Don't do a big rally," Heller-LaBelle said. "We've got four cafeterias on campus. Walk through them, shake some hands with some students and just ask them what they think about stuff."
Of the two candidates, the four-term Massachusetts Democratic senator may have a better chance with young voters than President Bush.
Among those ages 18-25, Kerry led Bush, 50 percent to 35 percent, according to an early March poll by Ipsos-Public Affairs for The Associated Press and Newsweek.com. Independent candidate Ralph Nader had 13 percent.
Exit polls in 2000 showed that Democrat Al Gore and Bush split the vote of those 18-to-29, but Gore prevailed among first-time voters, 52 percent to 43 percent.
Concern about Bush's handling of the Iraq war looms large on college campuses. At several of his appearances, Kerry has been questioned about the possibility of reinstating the draft to fill the military ranks, a step he opposes. The query harkens to an era Kerry knows well — the Vietnam period.
Kerry enlisted in the Navy and served from 1966-70, was decorated for his war efforts and returned home to help lead the opposition to the Southeast Asian conflict. The draft helped fuel that anti-war movement some 40 years ago.
Leigha Smith, an 18-year-old student from Florida, said Kerry's criticism of the Iraq war caught her attention. Although he voted for the congressional resolution to authorize force, Kerry has been outspoken in faulting Bush's policies.
"I think it's time for them to come home," Smith, who has relatives in the military, said of the troops in Iraq. Kerry has rejected the notion of an immediate withdrawal.
During the Pittsburgh event, Kerry questioned the Republicans who avoided the war and now criticize him on national security.
"I fought under that flag and I saw that flag draped over the coffins of friends," Kerry said. "I'm tired of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and a bunch of people who went out of their way to avoid the chance to serve when they had the chance."
In his appeal, Kerry joked with the crowd about the presence of Bon Jovi, who sang about peace, love and understanding.
"Jon Bon Jovi and I have a lot in common," the Democrat said. "He was one of the 50 most beautiful people in People magazine. I read People magazine."