By Patricia Zengerle
FAIRFAX, Virginia--Colleen Wilson has all the makings of a foot soldier for whichever Republican becomes the nominee to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election.
The Virginia college student comes from a conservative family and describes herself as a Republican. She is an intern at the county Republican committee and paid her own way to attend the prominent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this month.
Her support should be a given for a Republican in Virginia, one of the closely contested "swing states" where the 2012 presidential election will likely be decided.
But it's not.
"I may vote for Obama," said Wilson, who is 19. "It's possible. I can't say now, but I'm not ruling it out."
The George Mason University student, like a majority of her peers, is a moderate on social issues. She supports gay marriage and some abortion rights and has been turned off by the strident "culture wars" now creeping back into U.S. politics.
She had planned to vote for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney because of his business experience and ideas for fixing the U.S. economy, but said inflammatory rhetoric at CPAC made her wonder if she could vote for any of the party's candidates this year.
"It scares me how extreme they are on social conservatism," she said. "It wasn't that they didn't believe in gay marriage. It was how vicious and closed minded they were."
As former Senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, emerged as a front-runner, the Republican White House hopefuls have increasingly promoted conservative views on social issues such as candidates' opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage has broadened to criticism of contraception, prenatal testing and questioning of Obama's religious beliefs.
The Republican hopefuls say they are just defending religious freedom.
But the shift could be devastating for the party in a year when the key to defeating Obama could be paring back his overwhelming popularity with voters under 30.
Participation by young people in Republican primary races is down compared to four years ago and pollsters are seeing signs that the culture wars could weaken support for Republicans among younger voters.
"Millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) are a very tolerant generation. They have very much of a live and let live philosophy and when you suggest that government ought to come in and determine how you live, you lose millennials," said Morley Winograd, a University of Southern California professor and author of "Millennial Momentum: How a Generation is Remaking America."
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month showed Obama's approval rating at 53 percent among 18-34 year olds, compared to 48 percent for the overall population. Obama was ahead of Romney, then the Republican front-runner, by 51 percent to 37 percent among the young.
REPUBLICANS SQUANDERING CHANCE
"Who cares the most about contraception in America? Surprise, surprise, it's people under 30. ... They don't have a clue why people make an issue over gay marriage. It's something they grew up with," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic strategist and pollster who has surveyed youth attitudes for MTV.
Obama defeated his Republican opponent John McCain, by a 2-to-1 margin among voters under 30 when he won the White House in 2008, widening a political "generation gap" that has arisen since 2000 in which younger voters are increasingly Democratic.
In theory, 2012 would provide Republicans with an ideal chance to claw back some of Obama's advantage among the roughly 20 percent of eligible voters who are less than 30.
Young Americans have been hit harder than any other group by the economic recession, with an unemployment rate of 15.8 percent - nearly double the overall 8.3 percent rate. Surveys show many are more concerned with finding jobs than politics.
But there is little sign any Republican is doing much to capitalize on disillusionment on the economy, besides Ron Paul. The Texas congressman has attracted a committed group of young supporters with a small-government, anti-war message seen as anti-establishment, but he lags well behind Romney and Santorum in nationwide opinion polls.
Paul's supporters would not necessarily back the Republican nominee if he left the race. More than a dozen interviewed for this story said they would write him in.
Some said they might back Obama, although he would have to dramatically change his policy positions to win their votes, including stopping all foreign military involvement, eliminating foreign aid and repealing the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, which allowed increased surveillance of U.S. citizens.
The under-30s turnout in the early Republican nominating contests has been down, according to Circle, a Boston-based research center that studies young Americans' civic engagement.
For example, 99,822 voters under 30 participated in the 2012 Republican primary in Florida, compared with 134,412 in the 2008 Republican contest, according to Circle.
In Nevada, just 2,632 people under 30 - or 1 percent of those who were eligible to vote - participated in the Republican caucuses on February 4, compared with 4,794 in 2008.
"The Republican field is not energizing the Republicans," said Tufts University political scientist Peter Levine, Circle's director.
Ron Meyer, 22, who works at the conservative Young America's Foundation, said younger voters facing tough economic times were looking for answers and could turn to Republicans, but the party was not reaching out to them.
"It's a massive opportunity. It's monumental. I don't think many conservative groups ... really get it," Meyer said.
Some Republicans said the party's moral tone could even revitalize support for the Democrats.
"If it's perceived as telling people what to do, then Republicans could awaken a sleeping giant that could significantly boost President Obama's re-election chances," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist.
"They're walking a very tight rope right now."
Obama's approval rating among 18- to 29-year olds had slipped since 2009, but has been rising again. It hit 60 percent this month in Gallup's tracking poll. "Young people are consistently higher in approval (for Obama) than the national average," said Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport.
Obama aides acknowledge that they expect a tough election fight this year, and his campaign is already well along on a sweeping program to reach millennials.
Santorum and fellow Republican Newt Gingrich, who have small staffs, have mounted no similar efforts to target younger voters. And even the well-organized Romney has so far made relatively little headway with the young.
Circle conducted exit polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, the first four states this year to hold Republican nominating contests. Romney bested Paul among young voters only in Florida, and Paul came second there without campaigning.
(Additional reporting by Lily Kuo in Washington, Eric Johnson in Chicago and Nick Carey in West Chester, Ohio; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.