WASHINGTON — THE tall, Irish-looking guy approaches with a big smile. "Hi, I'm Kevin Geary, how are ya?" he says, offering a firm handshake.
Mr. Geary was elected president the day before, and he's already acting the part, working the crowd, juggling press interviews. He's even got his e-mail account all set up: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geary, a senior at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is the new president of the College Democrats of America (CDA), the student wing of the Democratic National Committee.
If any Democrats in town wanted a break this week from the party's travails - like the latest Democratic congressman to defect to the Republican Party, or the Democratic notebook that fell into enemy hands, or the sniping between the White House and congressional Democrats over the budget - all they needed to do was step into the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn for a few hours. They would have seen their farm team in action.
For five days, Geary and his compatriots - the fresh-scrubbed, the earnest, the ambitious - blanketed the place. About 500 college students, from all corners of the country, came to talk issues with their favorite White House denizens (Vice President Al Gore and advisers George Stephanopoulos and Rahm Emanuel, among others). They strategized about formulating a "Democratic message" and getting it out on their campuses.
More than a few also expressed interest in linking up with a campaign. Clinton-Gore '96 would be nice, several allowed.
"Most of the people in this room want to be either kings or kingmakers," says Rich Johnson, a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and the membership director of CDA.
Not long ago, a story about college Democrats probably wouldn't have held much appeal. Campus conservatives were the talk of the nation. But since the Republican sweep last November and the ascendancy of Christian conservatives skilled at winning local elections, college Democratic activists are suddenly a curiosity.
At the CDA's midyear conference in San Antonio, Mr. Johnson says, someone noticed the group's banner and asked: "College Democrats, they still exist?"
This kind of comment drives Johnson crazy. That, and the old line about how "once you have kids and a mortgage, you'll see things differently."
"That personally offends me," he says. "That says, no matter what, I'll be jaded and cynical about the world. What's the problem with being old and idealistic?"
So why are these young people Democrats? The No. 1 issue is unquestionably student loans, a program the Republican-led Congress has targeted for $10 billion in savings over seven years.
"If students knew what the Republican plans were, they would clearly be with us," says Sandra Cleland, who will be a sophomore at Florida State University in Tallahassee this fall. "They want to cut loans. We need that money."
Abortion rights are also big with this crowd, as are crime and the new national service program that allows young people to work off part of their student loans with community service, a program slated for demolition.
The first challenge, though, is to shake students from their apathy, a point Republicans endorse.
Michele Tjader, a law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, is concerned about women's rights and affirmative action. "We're underrepresented in fields that pay well," says Ms. Tjader, who plans to run for local office and wouldn't mind being Wisconsin's first woman governor someday.
For CDA President Geary, it all comes back to that first student loan. It was April 1991, he recalls, and his father was out of work. Geary wasn't sure he'd be able to start college the following fall. Then the loan form came in the mail.
"That was really the first realistic connection in my mind, besides going to public schools, that government really does make a difference in people's lives, and that the Democratic Party stands up for this and believes that everyone has the right to an education," says Geary, who is from Bedford, Mass. "Seriously, this could be the issue that unites our generation."
Ironically, it was the politics of a previous generation of college Democrats - specifically, their opposition to the Vietnam War - that got the group kicked out of the Democratic Party in 1968. In 1987, then-Senator Gore (D) of Tennessee decided it was time for the party to get active on campuses again, so he revived the CDA.
This year, it was the college Republicans' turn to fall out of favor with their elders. In March, the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) was defunded by the party when the group published an article calling for the formation of a third party.
After the group elects a new chairman in July, replacing the very conservative Bill Spadea, the Republican National Committee expects to be able to welcome the students back into the fold, says a party spokeswoman.
College Democrats know that when their Republican counterparts - still strong even without formal affiliation with the RNC, are back at full strength - they could be a formidable adversary. After all, they point out, Christian Coalition Wunderkind Ralph Reed once ran the College Republicans.