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God, Country and McCain

An evangelical youth movement at Liberty University -- a fundamentalist Baptist institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- has mobilized to support John McCain's presidential candidacy. Given McCain's clashes with religious conservatives during his 2000 campaign for president, the support he's receiving from conservative-minded students is significant.

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

LYNCHBURG, Va. Claire Ayendi is dealing with the fading kick of two double shots of espresso. It's the eve of homecoming weekend at Liberty University, and Ayendi, the president of the college Republican club, is trying to rig up a parade float in support of Sen. John McCain. She whips around Lynchburg in her Infiniti SUV, a pink iPod shuffling a mix of indie tunes as she mobilizes her fellow soldiers via cellphone: "If you happen to see a big 'Virginia is McCain Country' sign, could you, perchance, ask to, like, borrow it a few hours?"

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Ayendi spots the perfect sign in front of an office building at a busy intersection half a mile from campus and turns into the parking lot. Wearing a faux-alligator headband and pouring on the charm, the pre-law senior talks her way past two secretaries and gains permission from a third to borrow the sign before calling a friend who has a pickup truck. Inside of 12 minutes, the job is done.

To be a college Republican in the face of Obama Nation takes a measure of fortitude. For Ayendi, it also requires tons of prayer and caffeine. McCain's poll numbers are sliding. Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is a bottomless pit of money and energy. Even the hay bales on the rolling hills of once solidly GOP Lynchburg are painted red, white and blue with the name "Obama." And at Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1971, the first student Democratic club has sprung up.

For eight years, Liberty students have had one of their own in the White House with George W. Bush: a conservative Christian who has spoken about his conversion experience and funded abstinence-only sex education, appointed two antiabortion Supreme Court justices and supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. A pipeline of jobs stretched from evangelical colleges such as Liberty to the executive branch.

Now a new dawn threatens, and young activists such as Ayendi are fighting hard to the final hour, in part to prepare for the new phase of activism they foresee in the event of an Obama victory.

"It's the same impulse that Democrats have, the same passion," Ayendi says. "Aside from moral issues -- homosexuality and abortion -- I advocate small government."

Her friend Meghan Allen is more direct. "If Obama wins, I'm gonna want someone to get in there and reverse it ASAP," she says.

Obama has energized the youth vote, but he also has provoked a counter-movement. An astonishing 80 percent of Liberty's 11,400 residential students are registered, and most are Republicans. With polls showing Virginia on the verge of going Democratic, Liberty has canceled classes on Election Day and will provide buses to the polls. The school has also encouraged out-of-state students to switch their registration to Virginia.

Besides taking a full load of classes, Ayendi has been putting in 40-hour weeks on behalf of McCain. She makes phone calls, canvasses, operates a database of student volunteers, uses Facebook as her bully pulpit and will talk to anyone about how she thinks that Obama's promise to redistribute wealth is an affront to the Constitution. The campaign has galvanized her friends and served as an excellent primer on what lies ahead in their adult lives.

Ayendi and Allen playfully dog one of their Liberty friends for wanting to go into the seminary.

"If you want to get anything changed around here, you have to go through the courts," Ayendi says. "You gotta be a lawyer."

Totally, Allen agrees. "My goal is not to make laws Christian but to make government as small as possible so you can be as biblically Christian as you so choose," she says.


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