Oh, to be young and conservative!

"To uphold the traditional values instilled by my parents," said Michele Goss, 21, a senior at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta, giving her definition of conservatism.

"To do the right thing, to always stand up for what you believe in and have empathy for people," said Kevin Collins, 19, with gel in his hair and a grin on his face, a sophomore at Rockland Community College in New York.

"To have a love for our country, for the principles that make our country unique," said Dan Szy, who's studying international politics at Georgetown University.

America's conservative kids--bright, idealistic, full of hope and innocence--are gathered from across the country at American University this week for the 21st annual conference of Young America's Foundation, a private outfit that encourages college students to fight for conservative values on their campuses--campuses that they tend to view as besotted with liberalism and one-sided political correctness.

The 200 students attending the conference are being treated to a parade of conservative speakers.

"Ann Coulter is a passionate and articulate leader in the conservative movement," Jenna Soccorsi, 20 and aglow with political zest, declared as she introduced the polemicist and author. "A woman I personally admire!" added Soccorsi, who is a sophomore at Hillsdale College in Michigan. The daughter of a retired building contractor and a kindergarten teacher, Soccorsi hopes to someday find a behind-the-scenes job in politics.

The young conservatives chuckled as Coulter quipped about "the first president to have his ability to induce orgasms discussed on national TV."

They scowled indignantly as University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors noted that "Catholic students are asked to bear the insults of Serrano's 'Piss Christ' [a photograph of a crucifix immersed in the artist's own urine], or obscene feminist portraits of the clergy. . . . Has anyone ever been found guilty of harassing an evangelical?"

They listened raptly as Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund said of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s aerial disaster that "there are consequences to our actions"; as former Reagan White House policy analyst Dinesh D'Souza urged them "to copy that spirit of America that lived in Reagan"; as Burton W. Folsom Jr. of the Center for the American Idea informed them that the lowest misery index (the combination of inflation and unemployment) occurred in the 1920s--during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge.

(By the way, there's another Calvin Coolidge--and he was at the conference, wearing a dark suit and tie, a starched white shirt and glasses with small oval lenses.

("Conservatism," instructed this Coolidge, 19, a poli-sci major at Gulf Coast Community College and the son of a travel agency owner and housewife in Florida, "consists basically in principles of less government and freedom. More than that, it has to do with consistency: a consistent lifestyle based on principles of personal responsibility and accountability.")

The students snapped up copies of P.J. O'Rourke's "Eat the Rich" (in an Abridged Student Edition); D'Souza's new biography, "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader"; Folsom's "The Myth of the Robber Barons"; and "The Conservative Guide to Campus Activism," published by the foundation and covering topics like "Starting and Running a Campus Conservative Organization," "Protecting Your Constitutional Rights" and "How to Start a Conservative Newspaper."

Lee Gientke, 19, a sophomore at the University of California at Santa Barbara, started the Free Thinker newspaper on his campus and has, he said, already run into opposition from college authorities, who refuse to give him a list of incoming freshmen.

"They give the list to fraternities and sororities," complained Gientke, the son of a water company engineer and an insurance claims adjuster.

"At our campus it's a constant battle of ideas," he said. "We feel we need to win because we need to give people as much freedom as possible. If we don't, we'll see America continue to decline."

Young America's Foundation, founded in 1969 by conservative intellectuals, runs a national program of lectures, conferences and publications aimed at "educating and"--as a pamphlet says--"inspiring young people in the principles of freedom."

The foundation has won two major cases in the Supreme Court: establishing that universities are not permitted to treat religious speech as second-class speech, and making it possible for student activists to legally protest and pray in front of embassies of communist countries in Washington. It also triggered Congress to pass legislation that requires colleges accepting Department of Defense funds to allow students to take ROTC classes.

When Ronald Reagan was in office, he'd have the kids down to the White House when they came to Washington for the conference each year. Now they have to settle for a trip to Capitol Hill, which they're making today.

The Reagan connection remains strong, however. In 1998 the former president and first lady gave their beloved 688-acre Rancho del Cielo in California's Santa Ynez Mountains to the foundation, which runs a leadership development program there.

"It is critical to the future of this country that Young America's Foundation use the ranch to instill in tomorrow's leaders the lessons of my husband's presidency and to teach them that we are a blessed people whose best days are yet to come," Nancy Reagan said at the time.

Even without the ranch, the Young America participants seemed to be getting along fine here this week--happily soaking up information that will stand them in good stead in their future political lives.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," said Goss, the senior from Agnes Scott College. She considers that ancient wisdom a critical tenet of conservatism. "Help your neighbor. Volunteer. Rely for help on neighbors, friends and family--versus the government."

Her father, Goss said, is a retired entrepreneur, her mother a housewife. She herself wants to become a state representative.

With her engaging, direct personality and clear-cut values, it's hard to imagine her failing. In any case, Goss intends to apply to herself a "conservative" maxim that sounds, well . . . pretty mainstream.

"Expect the best of people," she said with a smile, "and that's what they'll give you."

CAPTION: Nicholas Hudeck, left, Delmar Johnson, Rhett Bordner and Jay Green at the Young America's Foundation conference at American University.