RAY SUAREZ: Welcome back to the Online NewsHour's Insider Forum. I'm Ray Suarez. We're reporting from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, where all this week, the Online NewsHour is asking Republican leaders and analysts your questions.
Today, we're with Charlie Smith, leader of the national College Republicans. Thanks for joining us.
CHARLIE SMITH: Yeah, thanks very much for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what are the big issues among voters on campus this year?
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure. Younger voters care largely about the same issues that your regular voting population does as well. The number-one issue right now with young voters is the economy, and it's perfectly understandable.
I know when I graduated school, you're always a little nervous about entering the supposed real world and trying to find those job opportunities in an economy that isn't doing as well as it should be. And so I think that they're really out there looking for somebody.
I found John McCain to be a very appealing person to be in the presidency in a few months here because I belie ve that his policies are going to open up tremendous economic expansion, provide great opportunities for people in our generation for those stable, secure, well-paying jobs.
RAY SUAREZ: This morning, in a column in The New York Times, Tom Friedman talked about visiting a lot of college campuses and being asked a lot of questions about the energy future, cost of gas, and greenhouse gas. He said he's seen an interest in the environment really rising on the part of college students. Are you seeing that?
CHARLIE SMITH: I think certainly we are. The environment is very important for us. We're going to have to deal with it for a very long time.
RAY SUAREZ: That's right. You've got to breathe for a long time to come.
CHARLIE SMITH: And so I think that that, combined with the energy crisis that we're in, energy security issues, are going to be very important for people in our generation because of those long-term consequences. And, in the end, really, it goes back to the economy as well.
Those high energy prices bring up the cost of goods of things that we're starting to go out into the consumer market and purchase. And so we're seeing the impact on our bottom line as well as college students.
RAY SUAREZ: The candidate for president from your party, John McCain, and the vice presidential candidate seem to have a difference of opinion about man-encouraged or man-induced, human-induced global warming. Where do you fall on that?
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure. I think it's certainly a very interesting and complicated issue. It's going to have tremendous consequences potentially for people in our generation.
I agree with many people in the Republican Party that we need to pursue a very responsible energy policy so that we can make sure that the environment is going to be clean for our generation.
I don't see any problem with going out and I think it's a great idea for our generation to go out and pursue policies and changes in our personal life to help us deal with this potential crisis that we're looking at.
RAY SUAREZ: Your Web site asks for donations to help fight liberalism on campus and train the next generation of conservative leaders. What's it like for College Republicans? Is this something that depends on the region of the country? Is it depending on the institution that we're talking about?
CHARLIE SMITH: It's surprisingly universal. And it's too bad that many college students are being almost persecuted on campus by a lot of their professors.
I know of many instances where students have been downgraded because of their conservative beliefs. They've been physically and psychologically assaulted, verbally assaulted by their professors. And I think that's too bad.
These are supposed to be educational institutes, places of higher learning, and these students are instead being indoctrinated by one side of a political spectrum, of an ideological spectrum.
So our organization does work on campus to expose a lot of this and try and hold some of these people accountable to educate the next generation of people, of leaders in our country, instead of just indoctrinating and forcing their viewpoints on them.
RAY SUAREZ: The biggest gap between the two major party candidates of all is among voters under 30, which I think, for a person in your position, would put you kind of on the horns of a dilemma. If you drive turnout, if you encourage young people to vote, given those numbers, you're almost doing your own side some harm. How do the College Republicans square that circle? That's a tough one.
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure. Well, of course I want young people to go out and vote and be otherwise participants in the political process as well.
Personally, I want more Republican young people to go out and do that even more. And so our organization does a tremendous amount of work on campus and online in reaching out to these young potential Republican voters.
We've also seen a lot of people that are moderate or conservative Democrats or Independents that are coming over and supporting John McCain. And I think, in our generation, especially, we find some very appealing things in Senator McCain, in his policies, in his personal story. And I think that he would be a great president.
A lot of young people are starting to see that in him now.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Sarah wants to know more about that. She writes from Vermont, "Obama is drawing younger supporters. What are you going to do to get young votes? What makes McCain appealing for people under 30?"
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure. Great question. I think that what's really appealing about him, again, are a lot of his positions.
He's been out there fighting global warming; he's been cutting a lot of this wasteful spending that we've seen in Washington, D.C., that's going to have a very burdensome impact on our generation. He's going out there and he wants to rebuild our economy, cut taxes for small businesses so that they can afford to expand or start new businesses and hire people in our generation who are just leaving school.
I think there's a lot of things that are very appealing about him, not the least of which is his personal story.
Our generation is very concerned about what McCain refers to oftentimes as "causes greater than ourself." We're a very charitable generation. We take part in a number of volunteer activities, everything from the political process to going out and helping the poor or underprivileged in America and around the world.
And I think that we see that John McCain has oftentimes put his country first instead of his own self interest, and that's something that we really want to see in our president.
RAY SUAREZ: Bruce writes from Eugene, Oregon, "Why is it that after three days, I have not seen a single word from any U.S. news media with reference to Sarah Palin and her pregnant daughter about how the U.S. has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy of any industrialized country in the world, or how about ineffective -- or about how ineffective preaching abstinence is at reducing teenage pregnancy?" And this is an issue that I'm sure has a lot of resonance with younger voters and younger people.
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure. I think that we're seeing the Palin family deal with a personal family issue. I think a lot of people in the media have tried to draw this 17-year-old girl out into the political spotlight, and that's too bad. This is a personal issue for her and her family to deal with.
A lot of pundits have tried to use her as an example, a political pawn, in this debate about abstinence and abstinence-only education versus whatever forms are out there. And I think that's too bad.
What it does speak to, to me, is the values that Sarah Palin and her family have that they're going to keep this child. Bristol Palin, the daughter, is going to get married to the father and they're going to raise this child in a good family.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit about the last eight years because young Republicans have really grown up with the Bush administration, maybe a little Clinton during their politically conscious years, and then during the real core of their coming to their political convictions and their ideas about the world under President Bush.
How do you think the country's doing right now?
CHARLIE SMITH: There's a lot of things that need to be going a lot better than they are now. And I think that's why we need somebody like John McCain who is an independent thinker.
He's been a maverick. He's opposed Bush on a number of issues, stood up to the president and the party and oftentimes public opinion to do the right thing for our country. And I think in times of economic need, right now, and times when foreign policy is going to have a very powerful impact on our own national security, we need somebody like John McCain who's willing to do what's right for our country, and not necessarily what's just -- what the public opinion polls are saying, or what would be better or more politically convenient for his own future. I think that that's what we're going to see in John McCain.
And so when we're talking about some of the problems we've been dealing with for the last few years, with the slow economy, that's where Senator McCain's leadership and his courage will really show up, and he'll be able to lead our country in a better direction.
RAY SUAREZ: CBS News, The New York Times, polled delegates to this convention, and found a 74 percent approval rating for George Bush, which is really tremendous at a time when the population as a whole is rating him below 30 percent.
Are College Republicans more like the Republican delegates to this convention, or more like Americans as a whole when it comes to reflecting on how the Bush years have gone?
CHARLIE SMITH: Yeah, I think that everybody recognizes that it's time for a change. President Bush is the head of the Republican Party as long as he's in the presidency, and I think John McCain is assuming that role now and taking our party in a new direction that's full of change, full of independent thinking, and with that maverick reputation. He's going to lead our party in a new direction.
So I think that College Republicans, young people in general, recognize that it's definitely time for a change in our country. John McCain is the one that's prepared to bring that change in, not just to sort of give it the political rhetoric that we're seeing from the other side.
RAY SUAREZ: Are college students looking to a future McCain administration for help with the rising cost of even being in college? It's going up much faster than the rate of inflation.
CHARLIE SMITH: Sure, sure. I certainly am familiar with the cost of college. I'm still dealing with it, and I suspect I will be for a number of years.
The best way for me, personally, and I think I would suspect many young people to handle the burden of high-cost education, is to be able to graduate into an economy with a good job so that I can start paying off these bills on my own. And I think that that's what we're going to see out of Senator McCain is the change that he brings to D.C. He's going to cut a lot of that wasteful spending.
And with that, we can cut the taxes that are so high right now on a lot of Americans. And we'll be able to afford these quality educations that we're receiving.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, you and I are appearing on a new kind of program, after all. It's a NewsHour program, but it only appears online. How has this world changed doing politics, doing campaigns, and reaching out, in your case, to a very specific group of voters?
CHARLIE SMITH: Yeah, it's changed it. It's upside down and inside out. It's very similar to the advent of television or radio or print media and what that did to politics. I mean, that changed politics forever, the television advertising and televised debates, and I think that the Internet now is allowing people to reach out and be participants in the political process in ways that they couldn't through television or through the radio or other mediums.
The Internet is a two-way street, and that's the great thing about it; it's democratizing information. And you can go on there and find what you want to find.
People can come on and watch this show because they find it interesting, not because it's the regularly scheduled programming time when they have to tune in. I think that's the great thing about the Internet, is people can go on there, do the research on their own time, learn all about politics and politicians and their positions, and certainly people in our generation have really taken a hold of that. But the regular voting population is as well. They're going online increasingly to find information about politics.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, finally Charlie, I guess the question that everybody wants the answer to is, will all these new ways of talking to voters work? For as long as I've been covering politics, the 18-to-25 vote has always been the next big thing, always just down the pike. And then Election Day comes, and, well, it doesn't really live up to expectations. Is this going to be the election that turns that around?
CHARLIE SMITH: I really think we're going to see a change in this election. We saw a tremendous increase in turnout among young voters during the primaries for both parties. And I think that we'll see that continue into the fall, and it won't just be a one cycle thing: this is a generational shift that we're seeing as this new millennial generation of voters comes into play.
I think it's going to be very important for political parties and candidates and movements to reach out to young voters in these new ways that they haven't done before.
And I think the reason it's changing is partly generational, the issues we care about, but it's also because of the Internet and the new mediums of communication. It used to be far too costly for campaigns to track down young voters, and our addresses are changing all the time, and we didn't have a dorm room phone, how are you going to call us?
And so I think that the Internet, you know, they can go on their Facebook page. All their contact information is right there. You can follow them on Twitter, or you can keep up with them in their video posting on YouTube. So it provides many new ways, low-cost and efficient ways to reach out to them online. And I think that's a big reason why we're going to see youth voters turn out at a larger rate this year.
RAY SUAREZ: Charlie Smith, the national leader of the College Republicans, thanks a lot for being with us.
CHARLIE SMITH: Thank you very much. It's been fun.
RAY SUAREZ: And thanks to you, all our viewers and online visitors, who have submitted questions. We still have more interviews coming this week, so be sure to visit us at our Web site at pbs.org/newshour to ask your questions and find out more about our upcoming guests. Thanks for watching.