WASHINGTON - Joe Hilton and his friends at the University of Central Florida do not look much like soccer moms or senior citizens. But in Florida, a battleground state in the race for the White House, that may not matter.
What matters is that as Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore remain locked in a tight race heading toward the November finish line, their campaigns believe an oft-neglected bloc of young voters could help tilt the outcome in several critical states where the election will be decided.
Energized by that possibility, both campaigns have begun broad efforts this year to mobilize those ages 18 to 24, who have long voted in disproportionately low numbers. Their efforts, which for the first time rely heavily on the Internet, are targeting college students and young professionals.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Gore campaign, suggested that young voters could influence the election's outcome, either by voting or by staying home, but he warned against the latter.
"The issues we are talking about - Social Security, Medicare - are not issues that people would normally associate with youth, but the decisions made in this election will disproportionately affect them," he said.
The Bush campaign has singled out students and young professionals as two of the key constituencies - others include women, African-Americans, Latinos and veterans - who they believe are crucial for victory and who warrant specific outreach. And both campaigns say they have sought to make the issues pertinent enough to the younger set to motivate them to vote Nov. 7.
But the campaigns face an uphill battle. In 1996, only 32 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 went to the polls, compared with 54 percent of Americans overall. Though nearly 43 percent of the 18-24 group voted in 1992 - the highest turnout for that age group since 1972 - the overall turnout that year was far higher, 61 percent.
A study released last month by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and MTV found that only half the respondents ages 18 to 24 were registered voters. And less than half of that group said they were certain to vote.
"These students are numb to politics because they haven't heard anything positive about politics since birth," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida who has written extensively on the generational disparities in voting patterns.
Their low voting rates are caused by "frustration, not cynicism," she said, and they represent a "great reservoir of votes" that is ripe for the candidate who takes them seriously and connects with them in their venues on the issues they care about.
Hilton, a 21-year-old junior who is organizing voters on campus for the nonpartisan U.S. Students Association, says he thinks many students are beginning to understand their potential as a voting bloc.
"I do sense that a lot of people want to get their voice back," Hilton said. "It is a big vote, and I think students realize that."
Both the Bush and Gore camps said they've dedicated more staff and resources than did past campaigns to registering, educating and motivating young voters, especially in battleground states, such as Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. And they are summoning new strategies to woo them.
Most apparent are the fresh young faces dressing up the outreach efforts. Gore's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, 27, heads Gorenet-the campaign's organizing arm for college students and young professionals - while Bush's nephew George P. Bush, 24, serves as the national chairman of Students for Bush-Cheney."[Schiff] is a contemporary of ours who is talking to us about how the critical issues of this campaign will affect us," said Jonathan Brill, 24, who is a co-chairman of Florida Gorenet with Ana Cruz, 27. "She realizes that these are people that haven't been targeted before but are where this country is going to be in the future."
Jae Collins of the Young Republicans National Federation observed that "networks have been established by the Bush campaign [to reach young Republicans] that have never been there before."
Using events that appeal specifically to young voters, such as community service projects or happy hours, the Republican networks are trying to lure a broad group of young voters and supply them with targeted information about Bush's policies.
For the first time, the campaigns have committed to reaching out not only to the nation's 15 million college students, who have traditionally been solid foot soldiers for local campaign activities, but to young professionals as well.
Gorenet, for example, was established early last year at the suggestion of Schiff to be the host of low-contribution fund-raisers as a way to engage voters who have finished college but have not yet bought homes or started families. These voters have typically been overlooked by political campaigns, because they tend to be less concerned than others about pocketbook issues. Today, Gorenet is spearheading efforts to turn them out to the polls.
Ken Lisaius, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said that reaching young professionals is critically important because this group often experiences a "rude awakening when they see how much federal taxes are eating into their paychecks." Lisaius said the organizing efforts of Young Professionals for Bush are intended to educate them on the Bush proposals that will affect them now or in the near future - in particular, tax cuts and education reform.
The Internet has proved to be a vital tool for reaching students and young professionals. "It is providing a new and innovative way to campaign," said Gorenet's Cruz.
For example, she said, the Internet provides a way for people to participate who typically have not been part of campaigns. Cruz said she recalled a group of medical students who recently e-mailed her at 3 a.m., looking for volunteer opportunities that would fit into their erratic schedules.
Collins, who manages the online political portal for the Young Republicans National Federation, says he believes that the Internet is vital to connecting with young people, who feel at home with that medium. The federation's yrock.com site, he said, has received 1 million hits a month since it was launched earlier this year.
Collins said he has found that voters use the site primarily to find local chapters of the national organizations. But the site also holds online debate chats and voter registration drives.
At the same time, the campaigns say they aren't neglecting the off-line world. Gore, in particular, has taken to addressing young voters in their own venues.
Last month, the vice president took part in an MTV-sponsored town hall meeting at the University of Michigan that enabled students to pose questions to the candidate. Bush has not yet responded to MTV's invitation to have a similar event but is still considering it, Lisaius said.
Gore has also launched a program called At the Table, which are informal coffeehouse gatherings at which a small group of young voters are invited to discuss issues with the vice president.
Some youth voting advocates have pushed the campaigns, unsuccessfully, to make their commitment more concrete by designating tomorrow night's final presidential debate in St. Louis a "youth debate."
The idea would be to involve youth questioners and to focus on issues of interest to young voters, like the environment and health care, said John Dervin of Youth Vote 2000, a broad coalition of groups.
For all their energy and optimism, and for all the campaigns' efforts, student organizers privately concede that they don't realistically expect a spike in the turnout of young voters this year.
MacManus said she believes that, organizing efforts and youth debates aside, young voters will vote in substantial numbers only if they see a stark distinction between the candidates and the campaigns work to convince them that young people, collectively, can influence the election result.
"Somebody has to give [them] a reason" to vote, she said.