A harsh rain was falling outside the anonymous office space where the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign was preparing its voter turnout effort in a state too close to call. Inside, dozens of volunteers were assembling leaflets, making signs and polishing plans for President Bush's rally Saturday in Minneapolis.
At one table, Allie Tibbetts and Carly Gau, friends and political neophytes from the University of St. Thomas, were sifting campaign literature to be hung from doorknobs in Duluth. They could be studying, said Gau, but "this is more important right now. It's a really big election, especially in Minnesota because it's so close."
Surveys and news reports around the country show a strong and potentially decisive increase in political interest and activism among college students. A new Harvard University study suggests an attitudinal shift, with 91 percent of students saying they care a good deal about who occupies the Oval Office and 87 percent saying politics is relevant, up 20 percent from 2000.
In Minnesota, both major parties are reporting dramatic increases in activism. The College Republicans have three times as many volunteers as four years ago. The College Democrats, unable to mobilize on all of Minnesota's campuses in 2000, now have more than 7,000 active participants, said Chris Montana, the state organization's president.
"It used to be unfashionable to care about politics or even to talk about it. Now it's expected," said Montana, 21, a University of Minnesota political science student. "Everyone's got an opinion. If you say you're undecided, people look at you as if you're crazy."
The presidential campaigns are desperate to capitalize. In the past week, Bush's twin daughters campaigned on Minnesota campuses for their father, while actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher and former governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura rallied students for Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.
In neighboring Wisconsin on Thursday, rocker Bruce Springsteen helped draw 80,000 people to a Kerry rally.
Huge registration drives by such well-funded organizations as Rock the Vote and America Coming Together have targeted students. But the students' voting intentions -- and even their intention to vote -- are difficult to measure, partly because they often have only cell phones, which are out of reach of polling organizations.
"You're talking to me right now on the only phone I have," Montana said. "That's normally the case. We don't have land lines."
Harvard's Institute of Politics found a "significant increase" in the numbers of college students who say they intend to vote, Director Phillip Sharp said. About three in four said they had registered, and many said they had been contacted on campus by fellow students.
Kerry outpolled Bush 52 percent to 39 percent in the survey, which covered 1,200 respondents. But in battleground states, Sharp said, Kerry's margin grew wider, with 55 percent saying they preferred him and 38 percent choosing the Republican incumbent.
A smaller sample by Pace University researchers of voters between 18 and 25, many of them college students, showed an even split between the two candidates.
Reasons cited by students and faculty for the increased interest range from the drama of the 2000 Florida recount and the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to worries about the Iraq war and the possibility of a military draft. A survey of University of Minnesota students identified education, particularly soaring tuition costs, as the issue most on students' minds.
"They have a material interest in the campaign that they didn't have before," said University of Minnesota political science professor Wendy Rahn, who studies voting patterns. "I think turnout will definitely be higher in the 18- to-24-year-old group than we've seen in past elections."
Students are bombarded with messages from every quarter in Minnesota that matters. A state that has backed the Democrat in the last seven presidential contests is rated a tossup. That means a focus on turnout, which means those student recruits will be firing e-mails and knocking on thousands of dormitory doors in the next 72 hours.
"Students felt they could afford to sit on the sidelines and not care, but since 9/11, things have changed," said Jake Grassel, a Bethel University senior and chairman of the Minnesota College Republicans. "We have realized that we can't wait until we're 40."