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Poll finds GOP continuing its gains on college campuses

When Nicole Gaska headed off to college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst two years ago, her parents warned the outspoken young Republican she would find herself in the minority.

Today, although the 21-year-old junior says she has taken her share of criticism from liberals, she has also been surprised by how many students share her opinions. A new nationwide poll, released yesterday by Harvard University's Institute Of Politics, finds she is far from alone: Of the 1,200 student respondents, 31 percent identified themselves as Republicans, compared with 27 percent who said they are Democrats. The largest number, 38 percent, called themselves Independent, or unaffiliated.

The poll also suggests those students could play a bigger-than-expected role in the 2004 presidential election. More than 80 percent of the surveyed students said they "definitely" or "probably" will vote, and two-thirds are already registered. For party leaders, the large number of unenrolled students means rich recruitment opportunities, said Dan Glickman, the Harvard institute's director.

"There are 9 million college students in the country," he said. "Most would like to vote, and they're up for grabs."

Since the 1980s, pollsters have tracked the growing numbers of right-leaning student newspapers and college Republican club members. Glickman said the party's edge in the most recent poll, conducted earlier this month, is a noteworthy development -- the largest margin Republicans have achieved over college Democrats in this poll's three-year history.

Students also felt strong loyalties to George W. Bush: 61 percent of college students approve of Bush's job performance, about 10 points higher than the general public. The president's approval rating among college students has not changed since an April poll -- a period that saw a 12-point drop in approval among the general public.

Jane Lane, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, questioned the poll results, which she said run counter to polling by the Democratic National Committee, as well as the active support of Massachusetts college students for Democratic candidates from Senator Edward M. Kennedy to presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

"We have every reason to believe that young people are far more progressive than this poll indicates," she said.

To Gaska, a lifelong conservative who remembers watching "Crossfire" with her father at age 5, the results were less surprising.

"A lot of people on campus are kind of conservative but they don't necessarily feel comfortable voicing their opinion," said Gaska, a member of the campus Republican Club.

Other Harvard poll findings point to students' potential for engagement. Nearly two-thirds said they would be likely to attend a political rally if asked by a friend; about half said they would volunteer on a political campaign if asked.

According to the recent poll, two-thirds believe that political involvement can have tangible results -- up 17 percent from three years ago.

After two years of inactivity, the Republican student group at Northeastern University recently reregistered for official recognition, said Michael Romano, the president of the school's student government, who is one of many unaffiliated students on campus.

"I don't believe in strictly a two-party system, and I don't believe that pigeonholing myself at a young age on one side or the other is going to encompass all my ideas," he said.

In recent months, student leaders at colleges across the city have banded together to form a new group, Boston Intercollegiate Government, in part to register voters and push students to the polls. Unless students become a powerful bloc, said Romano, elected leaders will never address their concerns.

Still, Northeastern political scientist Bruce Wallin is skeptical that students, given their apathetic history, really will start voting.

"Everybody says they're going to vote, but college-age kids don't," he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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