Thursday, June 24, 1999

Putting a fresh face on GOP

Young Republicans in town for three-day national convention

The Cincinnati Enquirer

[young republicans]
Young Republicans pose on Fountain Square
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Fifty-year-old-plus men in suits. Talking about things that don't matter to anyone but 50-year-old-plus men in suits.

        Many of the nearly 700 young Republicans who will gather in Cincinnati today for the start of their three-day national convention say that's the image many Americans have of the Republican Party. They know that to win national elections, it has to change.

        “There is a feeling out there that Republicans only care about the rich, that they are out of touch and don't understand what the poor and middle class go through,” said Elisa Wrede, a 38-year-old delegate from New Jersey. “We have to break that myth.”

        Ms. Wrede and many of the other delegates to the National Federation of Young Republicans convention at the Regal Hotel think that to thrive in the next century, the Republican Party has to reach out to voter groups that have not supported Republicans in national elections — young people, women, blacks, Hispanics.

        Many of the young Republicans here, while they might support one of the other GOP presidential contenders, think that the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is the kind of candidate who could expand the party's base.

        “He is the kind of candidate who could get people excited who have never voted for a Republican before,” said 32-year-old Dee Dee Benkie, an Indianapolis radio show host and a Ripley County native.

        Mr. Bush, 52, may be very popular among the young Republicans here this weekend, and he may well win the GOP presidential straw poll to be conducted among the delegates this weekend, as he has a number of the straw polls held previously by state young Republican organizations.

        But he won't be among the GOP presidential contenders coming to speak to the delegates, who range in age from 18 to 40. Only two of the declared candidates — Ohio's John Kasich and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander — have committed to attend the convention.

        Many of the delegates are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party in their respective states — young professionals in their 20s and 30s who do much of the grass-roots work in their states' congressional and statewide campaigns.

        “These are the people who are crucial to getting Republicans elected back home,” said Dave Brinton, the Pennsylvania state chairman, a legislative aide and campaign strategist.

        Mr. Brinton, 30, would like to see Mr. Kasich, the House Budget chairman, be the party's nominee, because, he said, the Ohioan is “the one who has been speaking most directly to young people.”

        Mr. Brinton and others in the group have been impressed by Mr. Kasich's Social Security plan, which would allow workers under 55 to establish their own personal savings accounts.

        But, like most of the others who favor other candidates, Mr. Brinton is ready and willing to work for Mr. Bush. The Bush theme of “compassionate conservatism” will strike a chord with younger voters, he said.

        “In the last few elections, it's not the conservative Republican message that voters have rejected, it's the messengers,” Mr. Brinton said. Of note was the sudden resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who stepped down after the GOP kept only a slim lead in the House in 1998.

        Susan Wilcox, 28, of Ashland, Ky., said she thinks young voters will be attracted to Mr. Bush “because he is someone who believes he can make a difference. That's why I got involved in politics. That's why a lot of us got involved.”

        But most of the young Republicans here this weekend are of a generation that has not been as engaged in politics as the generation before it.

        Earlier this year, the National Association of Secretaries of State released a national survey that showed that the number of 18-to-24-year-olds voting in national elections has steadily declined since 18-year-olds were first given the vote in 1972. Fewer than 20 percent of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed voted in the 1998 congressional elections.

        In 2000, the presidential candidates of both parties will have an opportunity to “turn that around,” said Mance Bowden, the National Federation's executive director.

        “Over half the eligible voters in the next presidential election are going to be under 40,” Mr. Bowden said. “The candidate who can motivate them can win.”

        Many of the young Republican delegates say their age group is interested in Social Security reform. “That's a big one for a lot of us, but, really, the issues that interest us are the issues that interest all Americans — taxes, growth, the national de fense,” Ms. Benkie said.

        Art Bobbounie, a 23-year-old delegate from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said part of the Young Republican mission is to get young people involved — the way he got involved, running for city council as an 18-year-old in a seven-to-one Democratic district and losing by a margin of only about 100 votes.

        “Our goal is to get people registered,” Mr. Bobbounie said. “I'd even be willing to work with young Democrats to do it. I'd rather see people vote Republican, but I'd like to see them at least vote.”


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