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Young Democrats get a taste of convention


BOSTON - Jason Williams stands just yards away from the FleetCenter stage Tuesday night, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy captivates the packed arena. But he can't see Kennedy, and he can barely hear the Massachusetts senator's voice.

Williams, the 22-year-old president of the Baltimore City Young Democrats, holds a pass that allows him into the center's crowded halls but not past the thick black curtains to a coveted spot on the convention floor.

Still, Williams has it pretty good compared with the hundreds of college students and young professionals who have trekked to Boston this week to volunteer, advocate, party and soak up the politics - and had little success getting anywhere in the vicinity of many star-packed events.

Particularly when his boss, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, calls Williams' cell phone to say he is on his way with two extra floor passes.

"Our elected officials give up their passes to see that a young person gets in," Williams said. Maryland has 62 Young Democrats (that's 35 and under) traveling with its delegation, and Williams said nearly all of them will have a chance to watch the convention in person before they go home.

The younger contingent of the Maryland party has already toured Fenway Park, partied with Roberta Flack, had drinks with Ed Norton and bowled with Ben Affleck. And that was just Tuesday.

"I'm just thrilled. I can't even talk about it, I'll cry," said Melanie Miller, 35, the daughter of Senator Miller and the president of the Maryland Young Democrats. Unlike most of the younger visitors to Boston, this is her second national convention.

"I know how I felt the first time, so I want all the Young Dems to feel like that," she said. "It's up to me to get the credentials to get to the meetings, to get to the parties. They got into all the top parties, to all the trainings, all the youth parties."

For the 138 under-26 delegates this year, life is even better.

"It's enchanting to see it in person, to be 50 feet away from [Bill Clinton] while he's talking," said 25-year-old Francisco J. Domenech, a delegate from Puerto Rico. "Everybody's just right there. You can just go, 'Hey, how ya doin'?' I could have walked right up to the podium."

The week is not proceeding quite so smoothly for the majority of younger Democratic activists, who are crashing on friends' floors instead of lounging in hotel rooms financed by their state parties.

"You have to be a delegate," sighed Nathan Eckstrand. The Rockville college student hung out at a Cambridge bar Monday night, watching the convention at a party thrown by the Young Democrats.

But he and his un-credentialed or unconnected counterparts said they have stormed as many open events as possible: Kennedy School of Government panel discussions, a Bill Clinton book signing and a women's caucus featuring Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, to name a few.

Youthful party activists have also been feted by the Democratic National Committee, Rock the Vote and the Young Democrats of America, among other organizations hoping to make the youth vote a factor in November.

A giant Rock the Vote party Sunday night featured appearances by Senator Clinton, Affleck and Natalie Portman. A Young Democrats event Tuesday brought out World Wrestling Entertainment stars. There have been youth concerts and caucuses, young prime-time convention speakers and campaign training targeted at college students.

"It's the most youth-friendly convention ever," said Chris Gallaway, national president of the Young Democrats.

Lawmakers, campaign officials and voting advocates tripped over themselves to stress the importance of youth participation. "Our campaign, his campaign, your campaign, thrives on young people," Vanessa Kerry, daughter of presidential candidate John Kerry, told more than 100 young adults at a youth caucus.

She was preaching to the choir: From the pack of Boston college students guiding state delegations around Boston to the young women in frayed jeans passing out information at the makeshift party headquarters, members of the youth contingent here this week say they are entirely committed to the coming election.

"I'm just disgusted with Bush on every level," said Leslie Rosenberg, 19, who took time off from her summer job to attend the convention.

"I'm willing to do pretty much anything to get Kerry elected."

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