Alex Brandon/AP
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty shakes hands after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington Friday. He's got James Tuttle's vote.

Young conservatives storm Washington for CPAC. Bring on 2012, they say.

Half of the 11,000 attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are college students. They're hoping to reproduce the youth enthusiasm of 2008 – but this time against Obama.

Looking over the sea of faces in the ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park, one could be forgiven for thinking they were at a convention of College Republicans.

Fully half of the 11,000-plus attendees at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference are college students, according to CPAC organizers. And for many, spending three days in Washington with like-minded young people who aren’t in love with President Obama is a welcome relief. They witnessed the youth power that Mr. Obama harnessed in 2008, and now it’s their turn. Bring on 2012, already. It’s time for change they can believe in.

Many aren’t sure who they want to support, but it’s early. Most of the potential GOP presidential field are speaking here, and so coming to CPAC is one-stop shopping. Plus, it’s fun to meet politicians – maybe even the next president of the United States.

“Either Huckabee or Pawlenty,” says James Tuttle, a media studies major at Penn State, when asked who he likes. “Probably leaning toward Pawlenty.”

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, isn’t coming to CPAC, but Mr. Pawlenty, who just finished two terms as governor of Minnesota, spoke Friday. Mr. Tuttle calls Pawlenty a “principled conservative” who won in a liberal state and “did a great job cutting spending.” And why Mr. Huckabee? “He’s great at debating,” Tuttle says. “He’s a principled conservative too.”

Many of the students seemed to move in packs. The group from The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C., was especially hard to miss: 55 young men, all dressed in gray uniforms. According to one cadet, there are about 200 students in the Citadel’s Republican Society, and the club helped pay for the most active members to attend.

George Hampton Cokeley, a Citadel sophomore from Charleston, W.V., says he’s leaning toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, though he hasn’t looked at the others. “I like that he’s a businessman,” says Mr. Cokeley, who appreciated Mr. Romney’s visit last year to the Citadel.

Fellow cadet Clifford Millar from San Diego says he’s leaning toward former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who addressed CPAC on Thursday and also met with the cadets. “I liked his focus on foreign policy,” says Mr. Millar. “He wants America to be more respected in the world.”

Then there was the group of guys all putting on white T-shirts over their dress clothes – T-shirts that, from a distance, seemed to bear the iconic Barack Obama “Hope” image. No, wait, that’s Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels on those shirts, mocked up in that same Shepard Fairey style. And this is the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels, which has descended on Washington to call attention to their man Mitch.

“Daniels is our only hope,” says Michael Knowles, a senior at Yale University who started the Draft Daniels initiative with three other Yale students. There are now chapters of at least 10 students each at 52 colleges, he says.

“Barack Obama won two years ago, and our generation voted and worked for him,” says Mr. Knowles, the group’s political director. “The national debt is now $14 trillion and people my age are going to pay for that. It’s generational theft. Daniels knows how to cut a budget.”

The group has a new ad featuring Jimmy McMillan, famous for his Rent is Too Damn High Party campaign for New York governor last fall. The ad’s message: The deficit is too damn high.

For some students, attending CPAC is just a Metro ride away. Jessica Dholakia, a senior at George Washington University here in Washington, worked for Romney’s last presidential campaign and likes him again for 2012. Paul Blair, another in the pack of GW students, says he’s “100 percent opposed to Romney,” because of the individual mandate to buy health insurance in Romney’s Massachusetts health-care reform. His choice for president: Mitch Daniels, who addresses CPAC Friday night.

Ms. Dholakia, who is from Orange County in California says she opposes the individual mandate in the federal health-care reform, but under the 10th Amendment, it’s OK for Massachusetts to take that route. “That would never work in California,” she hastens to add.

A lot of the college students here seemed to be seniors. And maybe, just maybe, there was a little job-hunting going on on the side. Certainly, landing a paid campaign position right out of college would be a dream come true. Some have other plans. Knowles says he’s going to try acting in New York for a while after Yale, “then when that doesn’t work, I’ll probably go to law school.”

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