Shedding the Republican Party's reputation of "stodgy old white men" is the first step in appealing to young voters who helped send President Obama to the White House, said attendees at the weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference.
In their quest to reclaim the bloc of 18 to 29 year olds, conservative activists are trying to rebrand the party as a relevant, inclusive group with viable ideas. One such effort, the Young Conservatives Coalition (YCC), made its public debut Friday at CPAC, where a ballroom full of students and recent graduates set about recruiting the next generation of leaders after their presidential candidate lost the young vote by a margin of 2-1.
"While many of us respect Sen. [John] McCain very much, we just felt he was not campaigning on a solid conservative platform, was not activating and mobilizing the base. There wasn't an engagement with young college students and young professionals," said Chris Malagisi, president and co-founder of the YCC. "A lot of us were very frustrated by that. We thought if our elders and those in leadership at the moment are not good, ambitious individuals to lead the next generation, we need to start doing it ourselves."
The importance of the youth vote is plainly visible from November's presidential contest, in which Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain with a popular vote margin of about 8 million. His advantage among young voters netted him 8.4 million more votes than his Republican challenger — more than enough to secure the White House.
Mr. Malagisi, 27, said he started brainstorming the day after Mr. McCain's loss. He recruited several acquaintances to sacrifice a weekend to meet in central Virginia, where the group drafted the Lake Anna Declaration, an espousal of conservative principles for the 21st century, covering issues ranging from the Fairness Doctrine to card check to immigration.
However, Mr. Malagisi and others attending CPAC Friday acknowledged that it is going to take more than reciting principles of limited government to chip away at Mr. Obama's rock-star status among young Americans. Instead, he said, they need to communicate their message in practical terms.
"If you go to college and graduate, you tend to get a job. When you get that job, you get a paycheck; when you get that paycheck, you open it up and realize that a third of that, give or take, is going to the government," he said. "There's a lot of confusion out there about what it means to be a conservative. So let's first get that message out there."
For its official launch, the YCC filmed an ethnically diverse group of conservatives discussing their philosophy, underscoring the goal — particularly where youth are concerned — of rebranding the movement as inclusive of all races and both genders.
"We have to think of the stereotypes and do away with them," said J.P. Freire, managing editor of the conservative American Spectator magazine.
Like others, Mr. Freire stressed the need to approach all young people, even those who have not traditionally been receptive to conservative ideas.
"We can't just keep talking to each other," he said. "The revolution won't be started in a meeting."
Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, emphasized the nation's shifting demographics and the importance of bringing Hispanics under the conservative umbrella.
"By 2050, one in three Americans will be of Hispanic descent," he said. "So if you care about tax cuts, if you care about life, if you care about fighting socialism, then you have to care about reaching Hispanics."
Libertarians at CPAC emphasized the need for partnership between their followers and the Republican Party — which agree on most fiscal issues — to create a broader coalition of voters, akin to President Reagan's.
"Young people are more likely to be libertarian than conservative," said David Kirby, president of America's Future Foundation, a network of young classical liberals. "Conservatives and Republicans, to win, need to do a better job of making the party a more welcoming place for libertarians."
Mr. Kirby illustrated his point by noting that only one-third of those who voted for the libertarian Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican primary voted for Mr. McCain in the general election.
Technology was mentioned repeatedly in any discussion of what conservatives must do to reach young voters, with text messaging, Internet video and use of the social Web site Twitter being popular suggestions. Moshe Starkman, a District-area software developer and member of the Young Republicans, was on hand to promote YRNetwork.com, a social networking Web site he created for conservatives.
"We need to become technologically independent as best we can," Mr. Starkman said, noting that the founders of Facebook and other popular technology firms helped fund or organize Mr. Obama's campaign.
"Don't just leave after speeches — become involved," urged Charlie Smith, chairman of the College Republican National Committee, in a speech to attendees who wore orange "It's our turn" stickers. "Conservative leaders all across the country want to know how to reach young people. We have to be there to tell them."