Young conservative activists today are a scrappier and more demanding generation — and that means Republican politicians can no longer expect lockstep support, but instead have to earn allegiance, say several youth organizers.
In fact, many of the high school- and college-age participants at the Young America's Foundation National Conservative Student Conference, held in Washington D.C., last week are brushing off their image as impressionistic and naïve followers. They say they won't be fooled by gimmicky politics or empty campaign promises from Republican leaders and presidential candidates.
"Conservatives have been let down by politicians," said Flagg Youngblood, who works with the Virginia-based YAF. The group is also headquartered at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Established in 1969, the YAF is widely considered a principal outreach and feeder organization for the conservative political movement that seeks to recruit and mobilize tens of thousands of students each year.
Youngblood became a student member of YAF in the 1990s when Republicans took over Congress. At that time, he recalled, the GOP was assembling an army of supporters to take back the White House and promising to bring limited government and faith-friendly values with them.
Since then, however, "a deviation from the principle" has left young conservatives — as well as many others — with a sense of skepticism and the feeling that promises weren't kept, he said.
"They're asking a lot of questions," Youngblood said of the newest batch of YAF participants. "They're interested in keeping politicians on task."
Participants and organizers at the YAF confab agreed that a new attitude is permeating the ranks. Whereas Republican notables like Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., and former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Tex., might have been rock stars among these young activists in the past, they've been replaced by non-politicians — luminaries and provocateurs in the college lecture circuit.
In the new era of shortened news cycles, a seriously divided electorate and declining Republican popularity in Washington, celebrity conservatives hailing from the blogs and conservative talk radio are leading the movement, said Tom Qualtere, who joined the Skidmore Young Republican Assembly as a freshman three years ago.
"There was a time when Skidmore (College) was suffocating from overwhelming leftism," Qualtere said. Since then, they've brought in conservative icons like David Horowitz and author Dinesh D'Souza, and their ranks and presence have grown, he said.
"They called us 'future fascists of America,'" Qualtere recalled fondly. "That was a rallying cry for us."
For those no longer marching in lockstep with the GOP, they do uniformly agree that Republicans in Washington just don't get it. Alison Aldrich, a junior at Virginia Tech University, suggested that while students are fighting ideological battles on campus, Republican leaders don't display the same resolve on Capitol Hill. She and others said they feel particularly let down on the issue of illegal immigration.
"I really do agree that many of them have abandoned the conservative principles … I guess it will take a new generation to stand up for our beliefs," Aldrich said.
Many of the students who spoke with FOXNews.com said they got involved with YAF as part of the group's "9/11 Never Forget" project, which since 2003 has helped organize students to "properly remember the anniversary" of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Meanwhile, back on campus, the war in Iraq is not preoccupying thought. Most students — conservative or liberal — don't serve in the military and are not personally affected by U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, these YAF conservatives generally support the war and blame the media for the lack of public resolve.
"That's why bloggers and conservative talk radio are so important," Aldrich said.
Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee , said many YAF members are also College Republicans, and he understands the frustration, but he believes it can be rectified with more outreach from the GOP.
"There has definitely not been enough focus from the Republican Party on how to reach out to youth voters, and I think that is what you are seeing," he said.
While reacting to what some have criticized as a betrayal of conservative values by congressional Republicans, Eilon said that in reality many young conservatives simply don't feel they are being credited for their efforts. "Obviously it's always tough when you don’t feel like you are being represented when you've worked so hard for it."
However, he added, "They are being represented more than they think by Congress. The thing with Congress — it's Congress. Things move slowly and it's not easy to make snap changes the way this generation is accustomed to."
It's not only the younger generation that is complaining. In her own remarks to YAF, longtime conservative activist Bay Buchanan, sister of commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, said Republicans in on Capitol Hill today "are sheep" who have acquiesced to the demands of President Bush at the risk of losing their conservative support back home. Bush, she suggested, has led the demise of conservative values during his tenure in the White House.
"The result — the American public is abandoning the Republican Party, because they abandoned them," she told the conference. "How do you turn it around? We conservatives need to clean out Washington. You guys got to spread the word."
Buchanan credited YAF activists with growing and expanding the campus movement beyond that of their liberal counterparts. Ryan Mulvey, a sophomore from the University of San Diego, agreed. "I think [conservative groups] are better prepared" for the ideological battles to come, he said.
But with public opinion stacked against the Republican-driven war in Iraq, Democratic voter registration is outpacing the GOP and with suggestions that Republicans are facing another tough election in 2008, others suggest that conservative popularity on campus may be a lot of wishful thinking.
"If anything, students and young people are becoming more liberal," said Lauren Wolfe, president of the College Democrats of America, which held its summer conference in South Carolina this year. It attracted some 530 students from across the country.
"Usually when you walk onto college campuses there is really only one Republican group there," he said, adding that those groups are usually engaging in publicity stunts. She pointed to the College Republicans at Pennsylvania State University last year planning a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game," which was later aborted due to the ensuing outcry.
Such gimmicks, she said, typically attract national attention. But that doesn't mean they are rewarded with serious support from students.
"(They're) more focused on (antics), than say, getting votes on campus," Wolfe added.
Not so, said the YAF participants, who are mapping out a plan to get out the vote for the upcoming presidential election.
The YAF has yet to rally behind a particular candidate, but two non-candidates are getting the most buzz: former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime favorite of the YAF, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Both have yet to throw their hats in the ring.
"There's no strong push for any (candidate)," said Qualtere, adding that it's a good thing young conservatives are exercising independent judgment and not rushing into single-minded support for a candidate. "That's cool," he said.