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Chris Lemaster, a 24-year-old wearing worn denim jeans and the faded T-shirt of the youth ministry he serves as pastor, looked down the rows of Republicans who had come to the musty Midwest Livestock and Expo Center in Springfield, Ohio, to hear President George W. Bush speak.

“There are no cool shoes,” Mr Lemaster said. Indeed, among the thousands who had come out this week to see the president, few shoes compared with Mr Lemaster's sleek sneakers. But then, there are not many young people at Bush-Cheney rallies. “MTV is discipling America,” says Mr Lemaster of the Republican neglect of his age group. “The Democrats are always on that.”

Mr Bush and John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, hold the first of three televised debates on Thursday night, each taking place on university campuses Miami University in Coral Gables, Florida, tonight, followed by Washington University in St. Louis on October 8 and Arizona State University in Tempe on October 13. Both will aim above the student audiences at older Americans, who go to the polls in much larger numbers.

Young voters are largely conspicuous by their absence on election day. Turnout in the 18-24 age group has slipped from just below 50 per cent in 1972 to 32.3 per cent in 2000, while the national turnout dropped from 63 per cent to 51 per cent in the same period.

At Ohio State University, which boasts the largest student population in the US (about 50,800), a youth-vote offensive is under way. People with clipboards foisting registration forms seem to be everywhere. Stephen Elliott, an earringed author who nestled with political hacks for the past year to write Looking Forward to It, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the American electoral process, is involved with one of many ad hoc efforts to put the squeeze on Ohio students.

Operation Ohio, as he calls it, is an attempt to register more under-represented 18- to 24-year-olds, who could tip the scales in this year's most crucial battleground state. On Tuesday night he joined a bunch of authors in Ohio State's Mershon Auditorium for the literary equivalent of Bruce Springsteen's Vote for Change gigs. Despite the non-partisan format, what drew the writers was plainly a belief in ramping up the Democrat vote. Novelist Rick Moody said of Carlyle, that most political of venture capital groups, “Carlyle bottles the rain and sells it back to the clouds. Everything is coming up Carlyle.”

Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, confessed to having voted for Ross Perot, entrepreneur and former third-party presidential candidate, in his day, but this time has “taken a side” mostly out of concern about what the Bush administration is doing to the environment and education, but also because “everything we hear is chosen by Clear Channel. It is very disturbing.”

Mr Elliott's plan has an extra element: students can sign up to get vote-reminder phone calls from any of the authors on the morning of November 2. But the student electorate is, perhaps, not as bankably anti-Bush as Mr Elliott and his fellow scribblers might assume.

“I have never seen my generation as conflicted as they are now,” says Ryan Kelley, 23, campus co-editor of the Lantern student newspaper. “This is definitely a Kerry campus, but probably not as much as people would assume from a large, urban college campus. Ohio is still a pretty conservative state.”

The rumour of a return of the military draft however unlikely in reality is a roiling addition to the usual discussions of character issues, the war in Iraq, and worries about education, the environment and economy.

Dezmon Landers, a 19-year-old student, says he is voting for Mr Kerry. If he doesn't, he says, “I may have to go over there and my brother too.”

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