THEY'VE been characterized as losers, slackers, apathetic, and lost. But so-called generation Xers are being courted by presidential candidates of both parties more ardently than at any time in the last quarter century.
Though young people historically turn out at the ballot box in smaller numbers than do other voters, they showed up in record numbers in 1992. Some political analysts say the 10 million 18- to 30-year olds who voted in the last presidential election were the crucial swing vote that sent Bill Clinton to the White House and George Bush back to Texas - and they could be important in a close race again this year.
With the lessons of 1992 fresh in their memories, candidates are reaching out to this segment of the population earlier, more systematically, and via nontraditional outlets where the MTV generation tunes in.
''There is now a conscious decision that young people will be a part of the winning strategy,'' says Jamie Daves, youth director for Clinton-Gore '92 and field coordinator for the Democratic Leadership Council, a Clinton-backed policy group that represents the party's moderate wing.
But youth organizers say it will take more than electronic gestures from candidates to propel twentysomethings to the polls this year. In 1996, they say, the youth vote will tip toward the candidate who substantively addresses the issues dear to this group: financial aid, employment opportunities, crime, and the environment.
''I think the key way to get young people involved is to talk about the things that matter to them,'' says Tabitha Soren, an MTV News host and the correspondent who blazed the hip channel's election-coverage trail in 1992. ''Young people are political people, but they don't necessarily connect the issues that they care about with the electoral process.''
A poll conducted early last month by New-York based Global Strategy Group Inc. showed crime and drugs at the top of the list of young people's concerns: 17 percent cite that as the most important issue facing America today. The federal budget followed with 10 percent; jobs and unemployment were the top concern for 8 percent of respondents.
Surveys show that two-thirds of the nation's 37.5 million 18- to 30-year-olds do not affiliate themselves with either political party - a sign that America's next generation of leaders is disillusioned with what Democrats and Republicans are offering. When they voted in record-breaking numbers in '92, twentysomethings were 10 percent of the electorate.
At the same time, Youth Vote '96, a bipartisan coalition of 18 groups, is lobbying candidates to reach out to young voters and making it easier for candidates to shower attention on this demographic group.
President Clinton, for instance, brought together a group of powerful twentysomethings at the White House last week to ask what messages will ring most true to young people and what are the best means for distributing those messages. On his campaign stops this year, he has made a concerted effort to include young people.
Republican Sen. Bob Dole met students on their own turf last month when he dropped by Dartmouth College's Alpha Delta fraternity house in Hanover, N.H. After his stump speech, he hopped in the souped-up, MTV ''Choose or Lose'' bus for an extensive interview with Ms. Soren.
In addition to the candidates' new awareness of young voters, a handful of factors that will affect the '96 election for the first time could lead young voters to repeat their record-breaking performance at the polls this year. Among them:
The motor-voter law. Early data show that young people are among the most likely to register to vote while getting or renewing their drivers licenses. Of the 6 million voters who have registered under motor-voter guidelines since 1994, 40 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24.
The rising influence of the Internet. College students and recent graduates log on to the Internet and World Wide Web more than any other age group, surveys show. When Dole answers questions via computer with Internet users as he did last month and as the number of Web pages proliferates, young people are the ones being reached.
The growing number of youth-vote organizations. This year Youth Vote '96 is making an early push to energize and register college students. The group sponsored a training seminar this month and was a presence in the New Hampshire primary.
''In 1992, we weren't nearly as coordinated or networked,'' says Therese Heliczer, director of Youth Vote '96. ''I think we are way ahead of the game as far as organizing this year.''
Even so, some observers predict that young people may not reach the lofty voter-turnout goals expected of them this year. ''If we got to [the same numbers as in '92], it would be a minor miracle,'' says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for Study of the American Electorate. ''I think the youth vote will be a factor only in a very close election.''
Some indicators show a loss of interest in politics among youth since 1992. In the 1994 congressional elections, for instance, fewer young people voted than in any other election in history. And earlier this month, a study at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that college freshmen were less likely to be interested in politics than any group of freshmen over the last 29 years.
Without a ''new'' candidate to back - the two GOP front-runners have both campaigned for president before - many say it will be hard to stir the same energy and enthusiasm among youths as in '92 when Clinton was running against 12 years of Republican leadership.
''We're still young and have ideals and believe in wanting to vote for someone, not against everyone else,'' says Adam Glickman, communications director for the New Party.
But those involved in the early process of the '96 election remain optimistic that the youth vote could sway the results. They point to surveys in which 89 percent of the youths polled say they are likely to vote; 55 percent say they are extremely likely to vote.
Thirteen percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the New Hampshire primary, which may not seem like a lot, Ms. Heliczer says, but is higher than the 9 percent turnout that was expected. They voted first for Sen. Richard Lugar, then Gov. Lamar Alexander. Close behind with 15 and 14 percent of the vote respectively were Dole and Steve Forbes.
''The youth vote is so important,'' says the Democratic Leadership Council's Mr. Daves. ''It's probably the conscience of the electorate. The sheer numbers are important, but more important is the enthusiasm that young people bring to a campaign.''