By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
NEW YORK - Ashley Stuart skipped her first week of college classes to go to the Republican convention, even though her professors threatened to drop her from their classes and told her she didn't have her priorities straight.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Stuart, 20, a communications major at California State University at San Marcos. "This election is the most important thing I can be involved in."
Stuart was one of hundreds of young Republicans at Wednesday's youth convention at Madison Square Garden. Held on the floor of the actual convention between official sessions, it featured top Bush administration officials, the Bush twins - and a brief protest that got violent.
Protesters who managed to get in to the youth convention began blowing whistles and shouting "Bush lies! Bush kills!" Several young conventioneers briefly fought with them before security guards hustled the protesters out.
The youth convention was aimed at a group being pursued by Democrats, Republicans and dozens of celebrity-laden groups: young voters.
Only a third of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 presidential election, according to census data - about half the rate of senior citizens. This year, especially in battleground states, young voters are being registered in record numbers, according to the nonpartisan New Voters Project.
"It's a great year to be young and involved in politics," said Dan Meyers, 20, of Auburn Township, Ohio. So important are young voters in Ohio that Meyers has won a paid position with the Bush campaign to round up college support for Bush in central Ohio.
"This is a time no one in history has ever seen before," said Nick D'Andrea, 21, of Richwood, Ky.
Young voters were also a major focus at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Recent polls show young voters favoring Kerry, especially on college campuses. The question is will they register - and will they vote?
Dozens of groups such as Rock the Vote, Smackdown the Vote, Declare Yourself, and the New Voters Project are registering young voters in an effort to end a three-decade slide in youth voting participation. Both Kerry and Bush have extensive outreach campaigns among young professionals, college students and youth.
"The amount of attention both parties are paying to young voters is unprecedented. And it's substantive," said Adam Alexander, spokesman for the New Voters Project.
Among the speakers at the 90-minute hour convention: Actress Angie Harmon and her husband, NFL cornerback Jason Sehorn; professional wrestler JBL, and the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, who were greeted by a delegate shouting "You're hot!"
"Look around," said George P. Bush, 28, the president's nephew. "This is the new face of the Republican Party."
Like their adult counterparts, delegates at the youth convention and other young Republicans here offered diverse reasons to support Bush: abortion, homeland security, taxes, education.
Contributing: Gannett News Service reporters Maureen Groppe and Dennis Camire.
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