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PORTLAND, Ore. - Four years ago, the presidential election was not even white noise to Marie Reyes. She had bigger concerns, like, um, anything except that whole Social Security lockbox thing that Al Gore and George Bush kept talking about.
"There was nothing in that election that I felt even remotely related to my life," said Ms. Reyes, who is 22.
But now, even with a full college classload, a baby and a part-time job, she spends nearly 20 hours a week in Albuquerque, her hometown, trying to get other young people to register to vote.
What happened to change Ms. Reyes was not just the issues - terrorism, the Iraq war and college costs, she said - but simple math.
"It hit me the same way it hits other people when I tell them: New Mexico was decided by 366 votes - I mean, that's how many people I expect to register, because I think I can do 300 easy," she said.
Ms. Reyes is part of the clipboard army scouring malls, public squares, concerts, county fairs and schools this year in search of what campaign managers consider the most malleable of electoral quarry: the young, unregistered voter.
After dismal turnout by young voters in 2000, surveys this year show that interest in the election among the young is near the highest level it has reached at any time since 18- to 20-year-olds were given the vote in 1972. And state election officials say registration of new young voters is coming in at levels they have not seen in years.
Polls in the spring and summer from the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center and MTV all found that young people say they plan to vote at a rate that will far eclipse the low-water mark of four years ago. The pool of potential young voters is substantial - about 40.6 million Americans ages 18 to 29, or one in five eligible voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or Circle, a nonprofit research group that has concentrated on the youth vote.
"This is a bigger group than 50- to 65-year-olds," said Carrie Donovan, the youth director at Circle, which is based at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Carnegie Corporation of New York. "It seems like so much of it is influenced by the kind of buzz that's out there, and this year, there's a real buzz."
Helped by outside groups that are spending millions of dollars in young-voter registration drives, Democrats say the pool of new young voters is swinging their way. But Republicans are doing their own drives through college Republicans, and they say the youth vote is up for grabs.
Young voters, who split evenly between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in 2000, are also notoriously fickle, according to those who study them.
The reason for the registration jump is not just the new mood of the young but also the determined efforts of nonpartisan and partisan groups alike to add to the rolls. Here in Oregon, where the last presidential race was decided by 6,765 votes, it is elbow-to-elbow combat for potential voters.
"If I see anyone else with a clipboard, I run to get the angle," said Alden Goodman, 19, of Portland. "I've followed people onto metro trains, onto buses, and when they finally register, it's because I made it memorable."
As one of many young voters who say they get most of their campaign news from the irreverent "Indecision 2004" segment on "The Daily Show,'' on the Comedy Channel, Jeff Leek, 22, a statistics major at the University of Washington, said politics were a big topic this year among his friends.
"There's less cynicism, less of this 'oh, it doesn't matter,' " said Mr. Leek, a native of Idaho. He said he supported Senator John Kerry.
The math certainly is motivating, and it will most likely play a role in battleground states where huge numbers of new young voters are being added to the rolls. In Wisconsin, for example, where the 2000 election was decided by 5,708 votes, more than 74,000 new voters, most of them young, have been added to the rolls by the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan group that is spending nearly $10 million to register new voters in six relatively small states where the outcome was tight in the last election. The project is financed primarily by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The clipboard legions are taking down cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses for a huge follow-through. ....
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