WASHINGTON — Sandhya Ramadas isn't sure of her views on many political issues - or even of her party affiliation. But the college freshman is sure that Sen. John McCain has the personal characteristics it takes to be a great president.
For Ms. Ramadas and thousands of other young people, Mr. McCain is the MTV candidate. And Gov. George W. Bush is Lawrence Welk.
That's because McCain, along with former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, is leading a surge in political activism by the under-30 set. They've done it by bucking their parties' leaders and pursuing pragmatic policy agendas.
"Because young people see themselves as independents, they're looking for maverick candidates in any party. So McCain and Bradley are attractive to them," says Ted Halstead of the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
Twentysomething voters have proven elusive for political strategists. The typical young adult doesn't follow politics in newspapers or on television, according to Dwight Morris of the Campaign Study Group.
And they're less likely to vote or have a party affiliation than the population at large. Harvard's Shorenstein Center found that fewer than one-third of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1996 elections, compared with 65 percent of those over 45. "You could say that they have nonattitudes toward politics," says Mr. Morris.
But their sheer numbers - about 50 million - make them a potential electoral mother lode. McCain and Mr. Bradley hope that young voters, properly rallied, can prove a decisive force in their respective parties' primaries.
It seems to be working. Bradley lost to Vice President Al Gore among all voters in New Hampshire, 48 percent to 52 percent. But among voters under age 30, he won by a margin of 56 to 43, according to exit polls. McCain's sweeping victory is partially attributed to an outpouring of student volunteers.
As evidence that the strategy can work, look no further than Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. In 1998 he won his job with 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He could not have done it, say analysts, without under-30 voters, nearly half of whom picked him (versus 23 percent of those over 60).
"Ventura shows that when young people get turned on by a candidate they will do their part," says Mr. Halstead.
But what is it that makes the silver-haired McCain a Gen X favorite?
The answer, say analysts, is a combination of rebellious attitude and pragmatic politics.
Surveys show that young voters disproportionately reject the two major political parties; 51 percent want the option of a third-party candidate for president, compared with 44 percent of older adults. In polls, they tend to be independently minded, liberal on social issues, and centrist on economic issues.
To appeal to them, "a candidate has to be willing to take on the system, speak the truth to power, and come up with policy proposals outside the conventional norm," says Halstead.
McCain has done that by taking unorthodox positions within the Republican Party, particularly on the issue of campaign finance. His reputation as a maverick in the Senate bolsters his image as the insurgent.
Similarly, Bradley has portrayed himself as a rebel-with-a-cause alternative to Mr. Gore's establishment candidacy.
When it comes to specific policy proposals, each candidate has put forth ideas that appeal to the "Friends" generation. For McCain, it's an emphasis on using the surplus to pay off the debt, bolster Social Security, and cut taxes only modestly - a combination Halstead calls "balanced-budget populism."
Bradley, meanwhile, stresses issues like race relations and poverty. These are of interest to among 85 and 88 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, respectively, according to Mr. Morris's research, conducted for the Medill School of Journalism.
Those issues attract supporters like Holly Teliska, who didn't imagine herself working on a political campaign. But six months after reading Bradley's autobiography, the college sophomore found herself standing on a Concord, N.H., street corner, fingers turning blue from hours of waving signs for the candidate in the bitter New England cold.
Generally liberal, she has been frustrated with the scandals of the Clinton administration. "I really don't want to see a Republican as president," she says, "but at the same time Gore does not appeal to me."
She went to New Hampshire to help out in early January, and ended up skipping the first two weeks of classes at Colgate University to continue campaigning, logging 2,000 miles in travel around New Hampshire. When stumping at colleges, she says, "We'd be the only people there."
Ramadas had a similar epiphany in December when McCain spoke at Harvard, where she is a freshman. While home over Christmas, she read everything she could find about him. She had never participated in a political campaign before, but after spending the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary making phone calls and distributing campaign literature, she stood, beaming, at the McCain victory party in Nashua.
"My friends make fun of me because I've become such a walking propaganda machine," she says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society