BY MCT NEWS SERVICE
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Caroline West, a 17-year-old student from Charleston, is just the sort of voter Barack Obama's campaign has been courting.
She's registered to vote in her first presidential election, and she's "absolutely" planning to vote for the charismatic U.S. senator from Illinois.
"He's an inspiration for young people," West said after hearing Obama address a Charleston crowd with his gospel-like call for national unity to solve social, political, economic and environmental challenges.
"I want to be a part of it. I'm so happy to see people my age getting involved," said West, who will be 18 in time to vote in the elections.
The question facing Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina this week is whether these enthusiastic young voters will show up in large enough numbers Saturday to decide the state's Democratic primary.
The stakes are high for the candidate who can mobilize the 612,000 eligible South Carolina voters younger than 29.
Last Saturday's GOP primary drew 44,000 young voters, according to exit polls. That was only 10 percent of the total turnout of 443,000. In contrast, 35 percent of the Republican voters last Saturday were over age 60. That trend relegated Mike Huckabee, who blitzed college campuses last week, to second place behind John McCain, who won with older voters.
Huckabee had great appeal to college-age voters, with his celebrity supporters, preacher's gift for humor and skill with an electric guitar.
This week, Obama was on the same trail, courting young voters at Furman University in Greenville, Lander University in Greenwood and S.C. State University in Orangeburg.
At the College of Charleston two weeks ago, Obama turned out 4,000 people, one of the largest crowds to assemble for a candidate this political season.
Thomas Kay, 20, of Spartanburg, is a College of Charleston student who likes Obama's call for a $4,000-a-year tax credit to attend college in exchange for some kind of national service.
"I personally think Hillary is divisive," Kay said. Describing himself as an independent, Kay said Obama "is a much more uniting person."
But at a State House rally about college scholarships, Chad Wesley, a 21-year-old York Technical College student from Fort Mill, said he supports Clinton because he believes she can deliver change.
"Her husband did great and she can only do better," Wesley said.
He illustrates the yearning young people feel for a color- and gender-blind political landscape.
"I think it's wonderful that in one year, we have a woman running and a black guy," said Wesley, who is white.
At a Columbia College town hall-style meeting recently, Clinton drew about 700 people.
The audience at the women's college pressed near the senator after her remarks to get pictures and the autograph of the woman some hope becomes the first woman U.S. president.
Participation by young voters has been on the rise for a decade, but remains smaller than that of older groups. The center estimated 43 percent of eligible New Hampshire residents under age 30 participated in that state's primary, a substantial increase over 2000, when 28 percent of that age group voted.
Estimates from the Iowa caucuses showed a similar jump in participation by young people - to 13 percent in 2008 from 4 percent in 2004. Young voters supported the Iowa winners - Democrat Obama and Republican Huckabee - by the largest margins of any age group.
Robert Oldendick, a political science professor and an expert on elections and polling, says it would be a mistake to model predictions of young voter turnout this year on past elections. He expects a larger turnout for Democrats in a state where youths have been attracted to the GOP in recent elections.
"Presidential nomination dynamics are different this year," said Oldendick, director of University of South Carolina's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.
He also believes betting a candidate's success on young voters is risky.
"Typically, they are less likely to turn out," Oldendick said. "It's just not one of those things they have been socialized to do. Despite the enthusiasm, their turnout is still likely to be less."