His face and arms were dotted with red paint, and his fingers were dipped in blue — something I realized after I shook his hand.
"Sorry," Sean Leonard said as he led me through the side entrance of Rec Hall, where Hillary Clinton rallied Sunday evening. "We've been making signs for hours." Leonard is the head of Penn State's Hillary Clinton group, and he said the most personal sign he's painted reads, "I stand up for Hillary because she stands up for me." As a student, he appreciates how Clinton lobbied for children to have a right to an education. After graduating from Yale, she knocked on the doors of poor people's houses to find out why they were dropping out of school and why disabled children's needs weren't being met. She fights just as hard, Leonard said, to get all young people on a health care plan.
Originally from New Jersey, Leonard skipped classes in February to fly back home and vote for Clinton in the primary and volunteer. "When I approach residents as a student, they're really willing to talk to me," Leonard said. Until a month ago, he worked as an intern for the Clinton campaign, and his free time is now devoted to canvassing and phone banking.
Young people could turn this election, Sean Meloy, president of the Penn State Democrats said. The CBS News Wire released polls that found most students attending four-year colleges are enthusiastic about voting.
Among Pennsylvania students who will vote or have voted in a Democratic primary in any state, Obama leads Hillary Rodham Clinton 71 percent to 28 percent, and among those who intend to vote in the Pennsylvania primary, Obama leads by a nearly identical margin of 71 percent to 29 percent. Support for Obama is consistent across types and sizes of schools. Every other door in the Penn State dorms had an Obama sign or sticker. Even message boards were scrawled with Obama slogans.
Freshman Olivia Grover, from the girls' dorms on the first floor, is torn between John McCain and Obama. She's registered as a Democrat and plans to vote for Obama in the primary. "I disagree with him more than with McCain and Clinton on the issues," Grover said. "But he's just such a cool guy." She said that if I could talk to her girlfriends right now (most of them Obama supporters), they'd mention his charisma, not his policy.
Obama's "youthroots" are expanding the base of his campaign from the bottom-up. By tapping popular Web sites such as Facebook and Myspace, he's received millions in donations of $100 or less. Grover admits she accesses these sites multiple times a day.
At his speech in Harrisburg last night, Obama said, "I know politics ain't beanbag. I'm scared but I'm tough." Had Clinton used this language, she would seem laughable, but Obama made it relatable. He's appealing to the hip-hop culture.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Obama went ahead and "brushed his shoulders off," after saying that rival Clinton took every opportunity to dig into him at their debate. "Brush Your Shoulders Off" was a song popularized by rapper Jay-Z. Spate Magazine (devoted to all things hip-hop) said after the rally, "Obama is the smoothest president the world will ever see."
By outspending Clinton 4-1 in advertising, Obama has become more common than a Chevy truck ad. Obama's campaign ran an ad in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg before the state's March 24 registration deadline aimed at drumming up new young voters. It cited his opposition to the Iraq war and his plan to help loan-burdened college students.
"The Obama group is the biggest group we have on campus," Meloy, president of the Penn State Democrats said. Meloy is an ardent Clinton supporter and delegate but takes a neutral stance as part of his role. He doles out fliers for all the candidates that visit campus and gives student groups equal access to the office. Meloy credits the campus' Obama group for the high student registration.
"If it wasn't for the Students for Obama, we'd still be red," he said. Student registration for Centre County increased to 8,000 voters this year. This is the first year the county switched from Republican to Democratic.
Part of the reason, he said, is the attention the campus received. Each of the candidates, including Bill and Chelsea Clinton, has made campaign stops. It also has to do with political awareness. Every few weeks, the university conducts a "mock debate" in which students from the Obama, Clinton, McCain, and Ron Paul groups are given two minutes to talk about their candidates' stances and respond.
Michael Long, who represented Clinton in a debate this morning, said students get really into it. "At one debate, the McCain representative told the Clinton person,'Clinton has the most earmarks of any candidate.' Our group responded, 'The Iraq War is the biggest earmark of all.' Everyone was cheering," Long said. Students who are undecided get a chance to ask questions and learn about the issues such as the environment, gay and lesbian issues, health, and labor. The turnout is usually high, Long said.
For months, Obama and Clinton have fought to woo students; Clinton by sending ahead daughter Chelsea and husband Bill, and Obama, by his mannerisms and speech.
In Iowa, first-time voters gave Obama his margin of victory over Clinton and Edwards. According to surveys of voters entering the caucuses, young voters preferred Obama over the next-closest competitor by more than 4 to 1. This suggests that the under-25 set — typically among the most elusive voters in all of politics — gave the Illinois senator a net gain of some 17,000 votes; Obama finished roughly 20,000 votes ahead of former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
More than 235,000 people have registered as Democrats in Pennsylvania since last year. State authorities estimate nearly 10 percent of the 4 million registered Democrats are ages 18-24 and about 20 percent are 65 or older. Pennsylvania is the third largest "over 65" population in the U.S. But with about 700,000 college students in Pennsylvania, a massive turnout such as Iowa could propel Obama or Clinton ahead. Both candidates know this is a race where every vote counts.