ARLINGTON, Va. – They're young and hopeful and they like to party. Like any other college students, they're checking out members of the opposite sex and talking up the latest gossip.
But unlike most people their age, they are lining up to get autographs from Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre, a switch from the usual school-years devotion to liberal heroes like linguist Noam Chomsky and author Susan Sontag.
One highlight of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend in Arlington, Va. is to see students who for a host of personal reasons have chosen to buck the liberalism on many of their campuses to join a movement that is typically defined by an older demographic.
This year, however, the students are sensing a change in the air. Now more than ever, they say, they feel the conservative cause is being embraced by young people and they are proud to be at the forefront.
"I think young people are looking for a standard of values that never change — a sense of security — and I think that's changed since Sept. 11," said Mariane Peracchio, a junior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, one of the more conservative colleges in the country.
Fellow student Kelsy Deye agreed, and attributed the renewed spirit to President Bush. "I think it was the character Bush showed after Sept. 11. It was a huge stepping stone for conservatives. It put conservatism back into the arena."
By all stretches, conservatism among young people really isn't as big as it seems at the CPAC conference. According to a UCLA survey completed this week, almost half of college freshmen identify themselves as middle of the road, though their answers to a series of political issues indicate they are more left than they realize.
Nearly 58 percent of the more than 281,000 students surveyed by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute and the Washington-based American Council on Education, said they believe gay couples should have the legal right to marry. A record 32.2 percent said the death penalty should be abolished and more than a third support legalizing marijuana.
But conservative youths have seen some gains in their numbers. Fully 20.7 percent of freshmen considered themselves conservatives, according to the survey, though the number pales compared to the 29.9 percent who call themselves liberal.
Despite the numbers, Lee Delgaudio, a 21-year-old community college student from California who was just discharged from the Army, said conservatism among his generation is expanding because young people are taking greater stock of their priorities.
"People are starting to fall back into the more hard-core values of conservatism," like family and religion, he said. "I think it's becoming more popular — especially now that watching Bush and Secretary Don Rumsfeld is the in-thing right now."
The issues at the conference haven't changed, however, though the context in which they are discussed has. Speakers talked about free enterprise and less taxes in light of the recession; pro-life issues now focus on cloning and stem-cell research; the discussion of civil liberties is relative to campaign finance reform, the war on terror, and immigration.
For the students, a favorite topic is political correctness. After what many of them call intolerance for conservatives back on their home campuses, this is a vacation.
"It's a relief to hear other kids our age believe in the things you do," added Ryan Brettell, 17, who hails from a tiny minority of conservative thinkers at Indian Creek High School in Indian Creek, Ohio, a predominantly liberal town.
Jason L. Van Dyke, president of the Young Conservatives of Texas, University of Dallas Chapter, said he was kicked off the school newspaper at the University of Michigan, where he previously attended, because he criticized gay rights week.
Van Dyke said he is pleased to find like-minded students at CPAC, where networking is a social function, though he is concerned that the new bend toward conservatism — a byproduct of patriotism after 9/11 — will fade away.
"People are definitely more patriotic, but I'm interested in seeing how long it's going to last. I think this is a good time for campaigning, not a time to get lazy," he said.