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Not all recent college graduates are cash-poor and taking refuge in their parents’ basements.

The College Republican National Committee, with up to $16 million to spend and headquartered in new digs on K Street, plans this fall to conduct a professionally run get-out-the-vote operation, deploying 60 field staff and thousands of volunteers in as many as a dozen battleground states to boost presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congressional races.

Representing 1,800 College Republicans chapters nationwide and run by recent graduates, the CRNC has elevated its profile and revealed its strategy just as Romney and President Barack Obama have gone to battle over the youth vote, with the two rivals as well as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill fighting over how to extend government-
subsidized low interest rates for student loans.

In an interview, CRNC National Chairman Alex Schriver said Romney and Republican Congressional leaders were smart to join Obama and the Democrats in supporting the interest-rate extension. Schriver backs Republican demands that it be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere, but he said the issue was likely to resonate for some time with college students and recent graduates who he argues are more disposed to vote Republican in November than conventional wisdom suggests.  

“There’s a misconception out there,” said Schriver, who graduated from Auburn University last year. “Were [students] caught up in the hope and change and the rhetoric of ’08? Sure. But this time around, they’re disenchanted; they’re sitting here not better off.”

Schriver said his optimism about Republicans’ ability to attract the youth vote is not misplaced, noting that the GOP presidential nominee won this demographic in 1972, 1984 and 1988. Republicans lost the youth vote by just 1 point in 1980 and 2 points in 2000, the latter a close election that Schriver said proves the value of investing in the targeting of college students and Americans in their 20s.

The CRNC, a 527 organization, recently hired an executive director, communications director, finance director and national field director to fill its new office, located around the corner from the White House. Associated with the Republican National Committee until it broke off in 2001, the 120-year-old group raised
$6 million in 2011 and expects to raise
$10 million this year.

Those funds are slated to underwrite a largely volunteer field program, with the goal of accomplishing 6 million voter contacts through phone banks and door knocks. Last cycle, the group spent 80,000 volunteer man-hours to make
2.1 million voter contacts, Schriver said. The group also intends to invest in the recruitment and training of the college student volunteers that make the organization’s ground game possible. Last cycle, the CRNC recruited 20,000; this cycle, the goal is 50,000 new members.

Schriver declined to reveal where the CRNC would focus its ground game, but he repeatedly mentioned North Carolina and Missouri as states where the youth vote was key in 2008. He also cited high youth unemployment rates in Nevada and Pennsylvania as examples of where his organization — which claims 250,000 members nationwide — might have an impact. In 2010, the group targeted races in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Because the CRNC naturally relies on college student volunteers, it tends to target races in regions that include university campuses and in states that have an existing GOP infrastructure. “It is our intention that we will garner enough youth votes to put the Republican nominee over the top,” Schriver said.

But the CRNC’s ability to motivate younger voters to support Romney and other Republicans begins at a decided disadvantage, according to recent public opinion polls.

Obama holds a 35-point lead over Romney in Gallup polling among voters under 30, and it’s not hard to see why Republicans are keen to improve their appeal. The Romney campaign has tried to attract young voters the same way the former Massachusetts governor has targeted women — by pointing to the high unemployment and sluggish economic growth under Obama.

The president’s strong advantage with young voters in surveys could explain why Republicans backpedaled last week on the student loan issue just days after Obama raised it.

The GOP’s pivot suggests an understanding both of this issue’s potency and the significance of the youth demographic, even as some Republicans accused the president of trying to buy off the student vote and groused that Democrats set the student loan time bomb to explode in an election year.

Romney quickly made clear he didn’t want a fight, and the Congressional GOP leadership followed in lock step. Republicans on Capitol Hill complained that Obama was hurting younger voters by using profits from student loans for his health care overhaul and by forcing them to buy health insurance, which subsidizes older, sicker people.

“It’s a very clever strategy,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “But in the meanwhile, the president is out there on college campuses saying, ‘I’m on your side,’ and what they don’t realize is, while he’s distracting them here, he’s picking their pocket.”

Democrats and the White House continue to make explicit plays for both groups and appear content to have the student loan fight continue through the June 30 deadline.

The House GOP bill pays for the $6 billion cost of the extension by cutting health care prevention funds that are part of Obama’s health care overhaul. Democrats and the White House retaliated, however, accusing the GOP of asking Democrats to choose between mammograms and student loans.

The White House issued a stern veto threat, Senate Democrats declared the House bill dead on arrival, and the issue threatens to linger for months unless Republicans agree to add the spending to the deficit. That’s something GOP leaders decided to do on the payroll tax fight earlier this year and what some Senate Democrats suspect will happen here.

The Senate Democratic bill would tax small-business owners who make more than $250,000 a year and avoid paying payroll taxes; House Democrats sought to tax oil companies instead. But tax hikes are out of the question for the GOP.

“Mitt Romney has offered young voters little beyond lip service and dishonest attacks on the president’s record,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said. “His position on student loans should be viewed as an empty promise given his support for the [House-passed GOP] budget, which would make it significantly harder for young people to afford college.”

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