Angela Hooten, who was voted the outstanding student in this year's senior class at Notre Dame, is hardly the typical Notre Dame student. The black woman from Tuskegee, Ala., is not a fan of Ronald Reagan.
That puts her in a minority on a campus that voted 63 percent for Reagan in last year's mock election. And she was very much the dissident in a campus roundtable watched by a visiting reporter here the other day.
But she was not alone, because Sarah Hamilton of Scotch Plains, N.J., newly named editor of The Observer, the student paper, was with her in most of her criticisms of the president's domestic and foreign policy.
They were up against two fervent and articulate Reagan fans in student body president Bill Healy and vice president Duane Lawrence, both juniors from Illinois. Healy, who ran the campus Reagan drive, can echo Reagan's own arguments. Lawrence showed a few doubts about the president, but together, the two men were able to overcome the Hooten-Hamilton duo's efforts to sway the most undecided of the five undergrads, South Bend junior engineering major Jeff Borkowski.
Borkowski, a Democrat in registration and by family tradition, said he stands to lose his education grant if the Reagan budget cuts go through. He doubts Reagan's understanding of civil rights issues, and he thinks defense waste is "just out of hand." Nonetheless, he came down chiefly as a Reagan defender.
Why? Because Reagan is "a strong leader, who doesn't get blown off course by people, the way (Jimmy) Carter did," and because Reagan believes, as Borkowski does, that "we have to defend democracy" in places such as El Salvador and "not allow a vacuum the Russians can move in and fill."
The conversation among these five students would have been profoundly discouraging to Democrats, for none of them sees today's Democratic coalition or leadership as offering much hope for the country's future.
But if the liberal Rev. Theodore Hesburgh's campus is a hotbed of Reaganism, as it is, even more bleak for Democrats is the picture at Penn High School. It is the crackerjack school 15 miles east of here that serves the most rapidly growing suburban area in this part of northern Indiana.
Two classes of 12th-grade government students (both with staunchly Democratic teachers) in this white but not wealthy, impressively equipped school talked about Reagan in terms that would have made Tip O'Neill weep.
During a week when Reagan was taking his lumps in the press, Ken Karch spoke for most of his classmates when he said, "I like Reagan. He's done a good job. Things are looking good. Even the dollar has gotten stronger since he's been in there."
"Not just economically," said Mike Starrett, "but the spirit of the people seems better, too."
Even when my colleague, Milton Coleman, playing devil's advocate, prompted some of the farm youths to remind their classmates that these are not good times for everyone, even when Coleman asked them how they felt about college aid cutbacks, about the prospects of more brushfire battles for Americans in places like Lebanon or Grenada, about Bitburg and about "Star Wars," these seniors gave spirited defenses of what Reagan has done and is proposing to do.
It was even more so in the class section for gifted and talented seniors, taught by a man who says "The New Republic is my Bible." By a 4-1 margin, these very bright young people said Reagan was right to go to the Bitburg cemetery, and endorsed classmate Joan Laidig's comment that if anyone deserved criticism, it was the press for "not giving both sides of it."
They split almost down the middle on whether Reagan is spending too much on the military, whether intervention in Nicaragua is justified. But on the big question -- whether Reagan's leadership is moving the United States in the right direction -- the answer was 3-1 in his favor.
At the very least, these reactions ought to tell the Democrats that they are premature in celebrating the dethroning of Ronald Reagan, on the basis of the bad publicity over the Bitburg visit, the setbacks to his budget and his Central American policy on Capitol Hill. More important, the Democrats need to understand that their party is really not delivering any kind of a credible message to the young people who will control the nation's political future.
The Reagan phenomenon did not stop when the votes were counted in his last election, last November. It goes on -- shaping the future course of American politics to his design.