Over lunch at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Nick Rizzuto is giving a tour of his tattoos.
"I have them all over," he says, dropping his fork to gesture with his right hand. "One bird -- a swallow -- on each shoulder, an old sailor, a piece on my arm, a nautical star on my back. I have a cop and a gangster on each shoulder, one on my stomach, one on each leg."
There's also a work in progress on a biceps. "I have to get it colored in," he says of his most elaborate bit of body art: a pair of bombs, surrounded by a flame and emblazoned with a sacred heart. The significance?
"It looks cool."
The tattoos are typical of a devotee of punk rock, which is what Rizzuto has been since the day he heard the Dead Kennedys back in high school. Only when the 23-year-old starts talking politics does the guy sound . . . different. On any issue you can think of, Rizzuto and all his subcutaneous ink side squarely with the Republicans, and come November he is going to vote for President Bush.
This is news he'd like you, and the rest of the world, to hear loud and clear. In December, Rizzuto -- fed up with the widespread assumption that all punks are liberals, and with the help of a few friends -- launched a Web site called Conservative Punk. On it, Rizzuto rants against the Democrats in general and John Kerry in particular, focusing largely on foreign policy matters. The gist is that Kerry and other liberals aren't fit to fight the war on terrorism.
"I have a complete lack of trust for the left wing in this country," Rizzuto says, a little sneeringly.
Last week, Rizzuto trashed Kerry's approach to the "Islamo-Fascist Mullahocracy" in Iran, comparing it to the appeasement strategy of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in dealings with Nazi Germany.
"Such fraternization with Fascist apologists," Rizzuto huffs on the site, "by an American political party should not, and cannot, be tolerated, especially within today's global parameters."
In the months since ConservativePunk.com was unveiled, the site has been visited more than a million times, and what Rizzuto calls the "freak factor" of his political leanings in tandem with his musical tastes has assured plenty of media attention, including television appearances on Fox News. Rizzuto has received thousands of e-mails, about half of them supportive, he says, the rest hostile.
"A lot of people were saying, 'I can't believe there are people who feel the way I do.' And a lot of people wrote to say this is a travesty. I also got some death threats. People take this stuff seriously," he says.
Embracing the right is pretty much a no-no in the punk realm. Since the late '70s, behind standard bearers like the Clash and the Dead Kennedys, punk has been linked with a left-leaning critique of government that sees politicians as tools of major corporations, indifferent to the working class and poor, and often corrupt. Punk bands were at the forefront of the Rock Against Reagan tour back in the early '80s and more recently a group called Punk Voter has organized a series of Rock Against Bush shows. It's also released a pair of Rock Against Bush CDs, featuring bands like the Foo Fighters and Green Day. More than a half-million copies of the discs have been sold, says spokesman Toby Jeg.
"Punk has always been music for misfits, for pimply-faced kids who feel like they're not in the mainstream," Jeg says. "And people like that tend to have progressive politics. They know what it's like to feel like a member of a minority. They look at Bush and see the guy who beat them up in high school, or the guy with the fancy car who just skates through life because his dad is rich."
Everyone agrees that liberals still outnumber conservatives in the punk world by a wide margin, but there's anecdotal evidence that the number of dyed-in-the-skin Republicans is growing. While there are no definitive surveys on the subject, Dan Jacobs, the owner of American Streak Records, a Republican-oriented punk label, has been conducting his own informal exit polls at punk shows in the last few months.
"About 35 to 40 percent of people who identify themselves as likely voters say they are going to vote for Bush," says Jacobs, who has a day job working for a research company when he isn't releasing anti-Kerry compilation CDs. "That's true even at Rock Against Bush shows. We hear over and over again that fans love the bands but hate their politics."
The data, while hardly scientific, actually mirror national polls about young voters. A survey released last week by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates found that 39 percent of likely voters between 18 and 24 describe themselves as conservatives, a few points higher than the 35 percent who call themselves liberal. The rest are independents.
"There's a common misperception that Kerry has a lock on the youth vote," says Adam Alexander of the New Voters Project, a nonpartisan group that has been registering young voters in a handful of swing states. "That's just not true."
Traditionally, none of this would matter because the Spring Break age bracket has a dreadful track record when it comes to showing up on Election Day. This year looks different. The number of voters who identify themselves on one or the other side of the political spectrum is at an all-time high, says pollster Mark Penn, and that presages a good turnout. If the kids actually vote there's no telling what could happen, given how evenly divided the country is today.
"Look at how narrow the margins were in 2000, and not just in Florida," says Alexander. " . . . It's not hyperbole to say that the candidate who wins this age group will win the election."
Within punk, a conservative movement, if it can be called that, was probably inevitable. The genre has always been a haven for the marginalized, but it was easier to nurture a sense of outsiderdom when there was something startling about the music and nobody had ever seen a Mohawk. Back in the '70s, most of the Sex Pistols' singles were banned from the BBC. Now punk is a steady business for a group of major labels and the nominally independent subsidiaries they own. There's nothing particularly menacing about super-selling pop-punk bands like Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and Green Day.
So if you still nurture the punk impulse to be vilified or if you just love to buck the orthodoxy, declaring yourself a Republican punk is a good shortcut to infamy. As a side benefit, Republican punks are unpopular and therefore broke, which hands them the classic punk role of underdog.
"When is Sum 41 doing research about the issues?" Rizzutto snorts, more than a little skeptically. "On the way to their photo shoot at Tiger Beat magazine?
"The central core of punk is all about being an individual and thinking for yourself. Liberalism is trendy right now. Liberalism is pop culture. I'm not saying it's not punk to be liberal. By the same token there's nothing unpunk about being a conservative."
With his shirt on and his tattoos hidden, Rizzuto looks like a slightly nerdy bike messenger. There are plumber's chains around each wrist -- again, "looks cool" -- and a hoop earring in each lobe. His bosses at the radio station where he answers phones for the sales staff asked him to take off the wrist chains, but he didn't and they haven't brought up the subject again.
"Check this out," he says when he sits down for lunch, handing over a printout. It's a story about young protesters in Iran who'd set fire to an Islamic propaganda office in the northern city of Rasht.
"They are on the verge of overthrowing the government there," he says. "It's amazing. But I don't see any stories about this in any of the media."
Rizzuto is slight and intense but hardly humorless. Asked about his long-term ambitions he says he wants to make money and get drunk on the weekends. And he isn't the sort of conservative who can say nothing positive about a Democrat. But he's traveled a long way from his mind-set in 2000, when he voted for Ralph Nader.
"I was as liberal as anyone back then," he says.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, rewired his worldview. He supported the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and has no patience for naysayers. His attitudes hardened watching his college classmates at the New Paltz campus of SUNY, which he describes as the most liberal in the New York college system. The protests against globalization seem to have left Rizzuto, a public communications major, particularly frazzled.
"Being on a college campus and seeing the disinformation passed around from one person to another, seeing these protesters who don't even know what they're protesting," he says, shaking his head, "it really disheartens you."
After graduating, Rizzuto went from disheartened to peeved by regularly reading PunkVoter.org. Last December he decided to start his own site. His mom and dad, with whom he lives in their home in Rockland County, a nearby suburb, liked the idea. Both vote Republican, too.
"I immediately began thinking that this would be a great merchandising thing," says Dennis Rizzuto, who owns his own media-technology company. "You know, all of a sudden you're getting sponsored, you're getting advertising. And he just rejected all of that. I think it actually bugged him that I suggested it. That's when I realized how sincere he was."
Building the site cost nothing. Rizzuto recruited friends, all of whom worked for free, one handling graphics, another coding and another who gave him free server space. As soon as ConservativePunk.com launched, Rizzuto was fending off charges that he was a walking oxymoron.
The reality is that the GOP has had a handful of punk fans over the years, most notably the recently deceased Johnny Ramone, founding father of the three-chord buzz-saw sound. He was an outspoken Republican who tried, and failed, to keep drug references out of Ramones tunes and played an anti-Reagan song called "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" only because he was outvoted by the other members of his band.
Today, there is a minuscule subcategory of conservative punk bands in the clubs. Generally, like Rizzuto, these are the children of Republicans who believe that national security issues now trump any social issues on the table. They're not bothered by gay marriage and they're likely to be pro-choice on abortion, but they'll back the man they think will provide the best offense against terrorists.
For Janet Hoyler, bass player for a band called Smart Bombs and Applepie, that's Bush.
"We've never had a confrontation at a show or anything like that," says Hoyler, who is based in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts. "Typically, we play our political songs in the second half of the show and once we start I see a lot of people heading outside to smoke a cigarette. That's their choice."
Like Hoyler, Rizzuto sounds a lot more tolerant than the state-of-the-art conservative these days. He's essentially a hawk with an abiding hunch that government can't be trusted to do anything but keep the country safe.
On Friday night, he watched the second presidential debate and was especially riled whenever Kerry sounded like he was going to spend the taxpayers' money.
"That was a never-ending promise!" he shouted as the senator said he'd make sure everyone had health care coverage. "There's no way he'll be able to keep that. No way!"
When Kerry criticized the size of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, Rizzuto was writhing. "He should always mention the allies we do have," he fumed.
Not that he was blown away by Bush's performance. Rizzuto rubbed his head in dismay at a few of the president's answers, more because of style than content. In the end, he thought Bush had improved on his first debate performance, but, he concluded reluctantly, "I'll still say it's victory for Kerry."
By the time the candidates shook hands and were joined by their wives onstage, Rizzuto seemed exhausted. Yes, being a conservative punk is an excellent way to become notorious, but that doesn't mean it's easy.
"Wow," he sighed, as the pundits began their post-debate chatter. "I'm in the mood for a cigarette."