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CPAC youths aim to change Republican image

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As a conservative on a modern American college campus, 21-year-old Amy Lutz is used to being outnumbered.

The senior at St. Louis University fights an uphill battle as chairwoman of her school's College Republicans chapter, but this week she will be in more accommodating environs when she attends the Conservative Political Action Conference that kicks off Thursday at suburban Maryland's Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Ms. Lutz is among the thousands of young conservatives expected to descend on CPAC, which organizers have loaded with dozens of younger elected officials and activists in hopes of revamping a conservative brand that has been skewing older in recent election cycles.

Many young conservatives acknowledge that Republicans are fighting an image as an aging, diversity-deprived party, one that has lost younger voters badly in recent elections.

But they say conservatives have an opportunity to turn around their fortunes by polishing their message and capturing many young voters who are losing faith in Democrats and are leaning increasingly libertarian.

"We obviously lost the youth vote by a lot and I think [the American Conservative Union, CPAC's organizer] has taken notice of that," said Ms. Lutz, who serves as executive director of Missouri College Republicans and will host a portion of Friday afternoon's CPAC session. "I think it's very, very important to reach out and engage college students and young people in a way that appeals to them."

CPAC officials expect as many as 10,000 people to attend the three-day conference, which runs through Saturday.

Courting the young

Organizers have made a clear effort to court a younger crowd, branding the conference with the theme "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives" and scheduling numerous events aimed at 30-and-younger types.

Admission to the conference is significantly cheaper for those younger than 25. A three-day pass costs $40 compared with $195 for older adults and $130 for veterans and military members.

"Each year, thousands of young conservatives attend CPAC," American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said in a statement last month. "And this year, in particular, we want to ensure they have the tools they need to combat the liberal agenda."

Among the conference's most publicized speakers are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, rising stars in the Republican Party who have developed loyal followings from young conservatives.

Many discussions at the conference are centered on reaching young voters, such as a roundtable discussion on the opening day titled "The Future of the Movement: Winning With Generation X/Y."

An event Saturday will honor 10 conservatives younger than 40 — a list of elected officials that includes 33-year-old Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Art Linares, a 24-year-old Connecticut state senator, entrepreneur and grandson of Cuban immigrants.

"What's appealing to the younger generation is upward mobility and the idea that you can achieve anything," Mr. Linares said. "We have a very creative generation, and it's time to get us into the workforce."

On the lighter side, a party Friday will give attendees a chance to mingle and network while wearing zombie makeup — invitations include a jab at the Obama presidency leading to a zombie apocalypse — and the Young Conservatives Coalition will host its ninth annual "Reaganpalooza" party Saturday night in the District.

Competing pitches

Republicans realize they aren't going to win the youth vote with fun and games, and there are competing schools of thought on how to reach college students and 20-somethings.

The recent presidential election suggests Republicans and conservatives still have their work cut out for them. Exit polls found that Mr. Obama won 67 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote in November compared with 30 percent for Mitt Romney, according to an analysis at Tufts University. The Republican challenger would have won such crucial states as Florida, Virginia and Ohio had he just managed a 50-50 split of the youth vote.

Jeff Frazee, executive director of Young Americans for Liberty, said the best route for Republicans would be to take the more libertarian approach of continuing to stress fiscal responsibility, but perhaps take a softer stance on social issues such as drug policy and same-sex marriage.

He said the loyal youth followings for politicians including former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas demonstrates a groundswell of libertarian support among youth voters who don't feel as fulfilled by the Obama presidency as they might have thought.

"What helped Obama was that young people want someone who is taking a stand and fighting the tide," said Mr. Frazee, 30. "He hasn't been that, and I think young people are kind of deserting his cause."

Other conservatives say conservatives should stick to their tried-and-true principles, but most are in agreement that there is progress to be made by bringing the small-government, low-tax message to 20-somethings who are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt.

"You learn when you get your first real job about the taxes and the way the real world operates," said Chelsi P. Henry, 24, who will attend CPAC as outreach chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation. "We need to improve our message of how every dollar counts."

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