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Young voters could boost caucus turnout on Tuesday

ST. PAUL - Signs point to a record Minnesota precinct caucus turnout Tuesday, thanks in a large part to young voters planning to attend for the first time.

With pretty much every presidential candidate campaigning on a platform demanding change, young voters appear to be getting more involved this year than ever.

An example was demand for Barack Obama rally tickets. Free tickets for the Illinois senator's Saturday event at Minneapolis' Target Center were gone in less than 24 hours, many to young voters.

Tuesday's caucuses give young and old alike a chance to vote for presidential candidates and get further involved in politics if they wish.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has visited a lot of classes and is impressed.

"They are asking very intelligent and well informed questions," Ritchie said.

Several factors are influencing youths.

Besides the obvious chance to affect national politics, Ritchie said, Minnesota's young people are studying the state's sesquicentennial (150th birthday) this year, which tends to drive up civic interest.

"There may be that there is a kind of a perfect storm," he said.

Chairman Brian Melendez of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said young voters appear to be more interested in politics this year because they see a chance to have an impact.

"For the first time in eight years, we are certain to be electing a new president and a lot of younger voters have not experienced that," he said.

Young voters also are interested in issues ranging from the Iraqi war to the economy, the chairman added. He said his guess is the economy is young people's most important issue.

"If they have concern about the economy, they are looking for a presidential candidate." Melendez said.

Ritchie said another factor contributing to an expected good turnout is publicity the presidential race has produced nationally, meaning Minnesota voters are better informed this year. And presidential races remain active, unlike many years when caucuses arrived after nominees had been decided.

Ironically, Minnesota Republicans and Democrats moved their caucuses up to Tuesday in hopes of having more say in who wins the nomination. Minnesota's original March 4 caucuses date may end up being close to the time candidates receive enough delegates to win their parties' nominations.

Minnesota is one of 22 states to hold primaries and caucuses Tuesday, a day variously known as Super Tuesday, Super Duper Tuesday and Tsunami Tuesday because it is expected to have a major impact on Republican and Democratic presidential races. However, an Associated Press analysis shows it is mathematically impossible for anyone to win enough delegates Tuesday to take a nomination.

Among Tuesday's Democratic contests, Minnesota is tied for seventh in the number of delegates, with 88. The big states are California (441), New York (280), Illinois (185), New Jersey (127) and Massachusetts (121).

Some Minnesota delegates will not be committed to any candidate, but all delegates who support a candidate will be decided based on the caucus vote.

On the Republican side, Minnesota caucus-goers can vote their preferences among presidential candidates, but those votes have no direct affect on the selection of national convention delegates. As state party Chairman Ron Carey called it, the poll "is a beauty contest."

The GOP will pick all of its national delegates and presidential preferences during conventions later in the year.

The caucuses in both major parties, as well as the Independence Party, are not only about presidential preferences. Those attending meetings across the state also will debate issues they would like to see adopted in state and national platforms later in the year. They also elect some party leaders.

Melendez predicts up to 100,000 Minnesota Democrats could attend caucuses, aided by publicity generated from his joint appearances around the state with Carey. The GOP chairman expects something closer to 50,000 to attend his non-binding caucuses, but he says they are important.

"As a teenager growing up in Iowa, I first participated in a caucus in 1976 when I supported Ronald Reagan for president." Carey said. "I have strongly believed the caucus system is a great way for people to get involved in politics ever since that day."

Even if Minnesotans want to do nothing more than cast a ballot for president, that is fine. Caucuses for both major parties begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday and people do not have to stay for other caucus functions after they vote. Absentee ballots are not available.

The Independence Party also is holding caucuses Tuesday, with a continuing caucus via its Web site for the next several days.

Ritchie said he expects many of the 4,000 precincts to report results by 10 p.m. Tuesday, but final returns will not be available until Wednesday morning.

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