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Reagan Works to Channel Youths’ Support Into GOP

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Times Staff Writer

In her crisp white graduation dress, a young woman stepped to a Rose Garden microphone and addressed a smiling President Reagan. “What advice can you give a young high school student who is hoping to pursue a career in politics and possibly seeking the presidency?” she asked, adding demurely: “By the way, I’m a Republican.”

It was just what Reagan wanted to hear. As he concluded his commencement remarks last week to the senior class of John A. Holmes High School, which had been bused to the White House that morning from Edenton, N.C., Reagan told his aides he wanted to do more events with young people and field more questions like the ones he had just received.

Optimistic Imagery

The President, seeking to convert his record popularity among young people into votes for Republican congressional candidates in November, is launching a “Springtime in America” campaign designed to rekindle the optimistic imagery of his 1984 reelection campaign and solidify his position with the nation’s normally Democratic youth. Today he will welcome 119 high school students from 10 states to the White House for another of his exuberant pep talks about the future.

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And beyond this year’s congressional elections, Republican strategists hope Reagan’s popularity with young voters contains the seeds of a party realignment in which the GOP would emerge as the nation’s dominant party. The President captured more than 60% of the college-age vote in his 1984 reelection, and those young people will still be voting decades after Reagan leaves the White House.

“What we have here is a Reagan generation,” said Patrick J. Buchanan, the White House communications director. “Whether it’s transferable to the next candidate or to the party, I don’t know. But the President loves it. He feels a rapport with these young people.”

As governor of California during the turbulent 1960s, Reagan could not set foot on a college campus without being jeered. His daughter Patti Davis, in her fictionalized autobiography, “Homefront,” portrays her father as totally out of kilter with the times while his daughter joins the ranks of the protesters--a reflection of the tension in the real-life Reagan household at the time.

New-Found Popularity

A White House aide said Reagan frequently recounts stories from those days and revels in his new-found popularity with the nation’s youth. “It’s a personal thing with him, and good policy on our part,” the aide said.

Some Republicans see Reagan’s 1984 election as the converse of 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt turned bona fide Republicans into born-again Democrats. Remembering how college campuses cheered Reagan during the campaign as if he were a rock star, GOP strategists dream of converting a generation of young people to card-carrying Republicans

“People under 30 see the Republican Party under Reagan as a party of ideas and opportunity and change,” said William Henkel, the White House senior aide who directs planning for presidential events. “We are definitely launching a long-term campaign to solidify the rapport the President has with young Americans.”

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Lee Atwater, a respected GOP strategist with Vice President George Bush’s political action committee, Fund for America’s Future, called 18-to-30-year-olds “the opportunity group for the Republican Party.” He said this generation can be won by candidates who couple economic conservatism with a muted appeal to traditional values.

Not Rubbing Off

Democrats are not panicking, however. Martin Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he sees little evidence that Reagan’s popularity is rubbing off on his party.

“We don’t laugh at it,” Franks added. “But when you poll those young people, they disagree with Reagan on just about everything. They love him on style, but these are not social conservatives.”

Nevertheless, Reagan has scheduled one event a week this spring with young people. A born storyteller, Reagan has found that young people are unusually receptive to his tales of life before television and rock music.

In the Rose Garden ceremony with the North Carolina students, the 75-year-old Reagan boasted about the good shape of his “machinery,” a favorite theme when he speaks to students. “We only get one set of machinery,” he said. “So what you do now and early in your life decides how able you’re going to be to enjoy yourself when you get to be my age. And I want to tell you, I’m enjoying myself.”

Broadcast to Schools

Last week’s Rose Garden event was beamed over public television into 171 school districts, magnifying the impact of a single commencement address many times over. Today’s question-and-answer session with students will be broadcast around the country by the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.

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Historically, young people have among the lowest rates of voter participation, but White House strategists hope Reagan’s inspirational talks will prompt a number of young people to register and vote Republican.

“We’re not going to be blatant about it,” said an official. “But when he talks about citizenship and education and the importance of doing your part, we think they’ll get the idea.”

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