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At Orlando gathering, GOP courts young voters

ORLANDO — What do you get when you cross a dethroned beauty queen, an Olympian-turned reality show wannabe and a pubescent pundit?

Maybe the start of the GOP's revitalization. Or maybe a sign of how desperate Republicans are about stemming the departure of young voters from their fold.

Give the Florida Republican Party points for trying. The state GOP is mounting an aggressive campaign to court voters under 35, which culminates today in a conference encouraging young people to get involved in party politics.

More than 500 people have registered for the full-day event, though the main speakers have prompted head-scratching and snickers: Carrie Prejean, the former beauty queen best known for her opposition to same sex marriage; Bruce Jenner, the 1976 track and field gold medalist; and Jonathan Krohn, a 14-year-old prodigy who wowed a conservative conference in Washington earlier this year.

"I was shocked by the guests,'' said Jordan Raynor, a Republican political consultant in Tampa. "I'm 23 years old and I guess I'm supposed to know whoever that guy (Jenner) is, but I've never heard of him."

Jenner, 59, may have won his gold medal before Raynor was born, but his more recent work includes stints on such TV shows as Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I'm A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!, and Skating with Celebrities.

If it takes reality show characters to reel in twentysome things to the GOP, Republicans are happy to give it a shot. They can use all the help they can get, because the party will be in deep trouble if they continue losing heavily among increasingly important groups like Hispanics and young voters.

Exit polls showed that Barack Obama beat John McCain 2-to-1 among voters under 30, and just as Ronald Reagan brought the GOP a generation of voters in the 1980s, early political leanings tend to be lasting ones.

"While younger voters are still less likely to vote than older voters, they're voting in sufficient numbers now to cause some important electoral repercussions," noted Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale University. "There has to be some concern whenever an age cohort is minted with Democratic donkeys stamped on them."

In Florida, turnout among voters 18 to 24 spiked from 39 percent in 2004 to 49 percent last year, according to recently released census estimates. At the same time, turnout among Florida voters 75 and older dropped from 72 percent to 69 percent.

State Republican Chairman Jim Greer, realizing the trouble signs for his party, has launched one of the most aggressive youth outreach programs in the country. Earlier this year the party created an interactive Web site, www.drivethediscussion.com, and he has put a big emphasis on improving the party's use of social networks new technology.

This weekend's conference is less about celebrity speakers, Greer said, than showing how the party wants to engage with younger voters.

"It's about, first, reaching them on a level that drives interest and second of all not telling them what they should be thinking, but letting them drive the discussion,'' Greer said, noting that younger voters are turned off by typical negative, politics.

The conference, dubbed DtD Exchange '09, will feature assorted speakers and panel discussions about using new technology in campaigns. The party will also award $2,000 scholarships to high school and college students who submitted videos about being Republican.

Rising concern about the country's soaring federal deficit and debt load provide a strong avenue for appealing to younger voters who ultimately will have to pay the bill. But Greer's efforts in Florida are still bucking a national trend.

"Where young voters were becoming more conservative in the 1970s and '80s and early '90s, the trend has reversed and young voters are voting more liberally in the last six or seven years,'' said Leslie Gallay, who has researched young voters at Pennsylvania State University and noted that social issues such as gay marriage tend not to motivate young voters.

"On the political spectrum they tend to be more left than on most issues. Those issues are less important to them than it is to maybe their parents or to more traditional Republicans,'' Gallay said.

Raynor, the 23-year-old consultant in Tampa, said last year's presidential election was unique, and he's not worried about the GOP's long-term prognosis with young voters.

Gov. Charlie Crist, he said, is especially appealing to young voters, Raynor said, because he's more moderate and less ideological, and President Obama's agenda is energizing plenty of young people.

"I think the White House is giving young conservatives enough red meat to bring them out of the closet,'' Raynor said. "But at the end of the day, having all the tools in the world to communicate with young people doesn't really matter if the Republican Party doesn't have a message. What's the Republican message today?"

Miami Herald writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

At Orlando gathering, GOP courts young voters 08/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 1:58pm]
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