John Kerry (search) says re-electing President Bush would create "the great potential of a draft." Not so, responds the incumbent: "The best way to avoid the draft is to vote for me."

The fact that both Bush and Kerry are on record opposing mandatory military service speaks volumes about the audience they're targeting with their dueling draft scares — young voters.

In an election where voter turnout is the great unknown, the voting rate and preferences of 18- to 30-year-olds may be the biggest wild card on Nov. 2.

"One of the things that have been puzzling us is how young voters will behave on Election Day," said Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster at the Pew Research Center (search). "They've been pretty volatile, sometimes strongly in Kerry's camp and other times driven back to Bush."

Young voters were evenly divided between Bush and Kerry in polling conducted this month by Ipsos-Public Affairs for Newsweek.com and The Associated Press. Among likely voters under age 30, Kerry led 52 percent to 42 percent.

Exit polls from the 2000 election showed that Bush roughly split the under-30 vote with Democrat Al Gore.

Traditionally, young people have been among the least likely to vote. Of the 24 million eligible voters aged 18 to 24 in 2000, only one-third of them cast ballots, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This year, Kohut said his polling shows an increase of 15 percentage points over 2000 in the number of young people saying they're registered to vote. The research also shows a spike in the number of youths who say they're likely to vote.

Count Nick Ford among them. The 21-year-old George Washington University student began the year favoring Bush but is now in Kerry's camp. "I don't like the war in Iraq and I'm opposed to the draft," said Ford, who plans to vote absentee in his hometown of New York City.

Further down the street, fellow GWU student Ted Kennedy, 19, said he is firmly behind Bush after briefly wavering. The volunteer firefighter says Bush deserves a second term for his leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks, including the war in Iraq.

"I'm the wrong person to ask about the draft, because if my number came up, I'm there. I'd fight. In a minute," he said.

The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election survey found that half of young people believe Bush wants to reinstate the military draft. Only 8 percent said Kerry wants it.

The day the poll was released, Bush said in his second debate with Kerry, "We're not going to have a draft, period."

Kerry wouldn't let it go. A week later, the Democrat told The Des Moines Register "With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft."

Campaigning in a Florida community dependent on the military, Bush fired back Saturday. "We will not have a draft .... The best way to avoid a draft is to vote for me."

In an interview Monday with the AP, Bush accused Kerry of scare tactics and insisted he would not bring back the military draft, even if there were a crisis with North Korea or Iran.

"I believe we've got the assets and manpower necessary to be able to deal with another theater should one arise," Bush said.

Special-interest groups backing Kerry are fueling rumors of a draft in a second Bush term. MoveOnStudentAction.org is launching a nationwide campus "Feel a Draft?" campaign to demand an exit strategy in Iraq and urge Bush to detail a specific plan to avoid the draft.

"There is no doubt that there is a lot of distress about both the backdoor draft that already exists and the likelihood of instituting a regular draft if Bush continues these go-it-alone policies," said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman.

Kerry has argued that a "backdoor draft" exists because some U.S. forces have been required to extend their military careers to serve in Iraq.

Other Kerry advisers say privately they suspect the impact of the draft issue will be minimal — with the economy, Iraq and other concerns holding more sway over young voters. The campaign plans to dispatch Kerry surrogates to college campuses across the country. The Bush campaign is targeting college students, too.

Voter registration drives already have produced striking results, with nearly 100,000 young people registering in Michigan and even more in Wisconsin. While newly registered voters are usually the least likely to cast ballots, each election offers new possibilities.

"We're paying attention to everything," said Nicole Bautista, a 21-year-old Kerry backer from Pittsburgh, "including the notion that we could be drafted."