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Like a lot of college students, Simi Murumba is coming of age in a world she wants to change.
For the 20-year-old anthropology major at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, that means deferring her studies -- to work full time turning out the vote in an election that she considers crucial to her generation.
"A lot of people feel that we can't create change by voting alone," Murumba said. "And that's true. It's only a piece of the puzzle. But it can't happen without voting."
Whether it's the economy, war, gas prices or climate change stirring them, young people are expected to show up on Election Day in greater numbers than ever. It's a trend Democrats such as Murumba are counting on to transform the presidential race.
But it's not just Democrats. Republicans, too, are seeing an upswing of young people volunteering for campaigns and turning out at rallies. Be it in reaction to Barack Obama, or because of what's at stake for GOP hopeful John McCain, young conservatives are engaged, as well.
"Our generation tends to be liberal, but this also encourages us," says Bethany Dorobiala, who chairs the Minnesota College Republicans. "There is a need for us to rely on each other, to stick together."
In the face of large-scale voter registration drives by Democratic-leaning student and community groups, Dorobiala says her group has recruited more than 1,500 new members, a new level of GOP activism across the state.
At the same time, a record 3,500 volunteers have flocked in the past two months to Minnesota DFLers' statewide youth group, called MYDFL.
No surprise there. Some national polls show that Obama -- who broke into hip-hop culture in will.i.am's music video paean, "Yes We Can" -- holds a nearly 30-percentage-point lead over McCain among voters 18 to 29.
Both parties' efforts come alongside those of organizations such as the Student Public Interest Research Group, whose New Voters Project has registered more than 600,000 young people around the nation since 2004.
It's easy to dismiss the youth vote as a paper tiger. Although it's hyped every four years, a running joke in politics is that there's a common designation for candidates who rely on the youth vote: Loser.
But seeing the youth dynamics this year, and following a 23 percent increase in under-30 voters in 2004, most of the experts have become believers.
"Something's going on in this election," said George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald, who has studied voter turnout for national exit polling organizations. "Young people are much more engaged than they normally are."
And just as the aging populations of battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania could be a huge advantage for McCain, the newly energized youth is a key demographic component for Obama.
But student activists in both parties in Minnesota are taking stock, given that voter turnout in the state leads the nation across the board, including the under-30 demographic, which posted an impressive 69 percent turnout four years ago.
Political analysts say that increases in youth participation nationally reflect a new political reality. After the razor-thin margins of the past two presidential elections, both major parties and their allies have put a premium on youth outreach, seeking any advantage in the 2008 election.
"New young people are a prime target," said researcher Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
According to Levine, the election dramas of 2000 and 2004 came alongside a series of world events that gripped a new generation that is just coming of age: The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, new evidence of global warming, and the increasingly interdependent world economy.
"Attentiveness to news has increased," Levine said.
And along with attentiveness comes a stronger feeling of civic engagement. "Kids coming up today are a lot more idealistic," said Dick Mammen, a longtime youth activist who works for the Minneapolis Park Board. "There's a much greater sense of community stewardship."
For many students like Murumba, a St. Paul native and youth outreach worker for Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's reelection campaign, the stakes are directly personal, as well. Unable to afford a four-year college, she enrolled in a community college to save on tuition. To her, that's a political issue. She plans to enroll at the University of Minnesota -- but not until after the election.
"One of the issues we're struggling with is accessible education and skyrocketing student costs," she said. "It's very different to be in college now than it was in the past."
'Explode the Vote'
As the vice presidential debate got underway on a video screen, Murumba was looking over the voter registration tables outside the Coffman Union's Great Hall on the University of Minnesota campus.
About 500 students were milling about for Explode the Vote, a hip-hop concert she helped organize for Ellison to sign up Democratic voters and volunteers. No one doubted that much of the crowd was there to see the headliner, Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali.
But there was a catch. No one got in without walking past a table manned by Kris Jones, 20, a political science junior from New York. "Brother Ali gets them here, but you can't get in without being asked if you've registered to vote about a dozen times," Jones said.
Among Jones' first customers was Drew Thrasher, a high-school senior from St. Paul who just turned 18 on Sept. 9. "I had to get it done," Thrasher said. "It feels good. All the people I know who are 18 are registered to vote."
As he filled out a card, a group called Green Sketch was on stage performing: "Every four years you've got to get in the booth. ... Use your brain!"
By the end of the night, Murumba's tally was 185 new volunteers and 40 new voters.
'Some barrier will be broken'
As young Democrats rallied with Murumba and Brother Ali, a small gathering of College Republicans settled in to watch the vice presidential debate on an overhead screen across the street in Ford Hall.
Among them was Abdul Magba-Kamara, 24, chairman of the GOP's U chapter. He figures Republicans can claim about a third of the campus vote. Maybe more. "All you can expect is to get that 30 percent activated," he said.
The most active that night was Drew Post, who was just finishing up his 200th phone call for a pre-debate GOP phone bank effort. "I believe in free markets," said Post, 20, a business student from Orono.
The cell phones and call lists were provided by the Minnesota College Republicans, who also provided the pizza.
Joining in the group was Christian May, who sports "No Obama" and "Support the Military" pins on his backpack. "You've got excitement on both sides," he said. "No matter who gets elected, some barrier will be broken."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753