When John Kerry sought the Democratic nomination in the last presidential election, his biggest Iowa crowd before the state caucuses was about 1,500 people. At a University of Iowa rally last month, Barack Obama drew 10,000, many of them students.
The Illinois senator's candidacy has helped spark a surge in campus activism that he has moved quickly to harness, establishing 300 college chapters and working with students to organize many of his largest rallies.
The ferment may be unparalleled since 1968, when young voters rallied behind Sen. Eugene McCarthy and his anti-Vietnam War platform, said David Rosenfeld, campus program director for the Student Public Interest Research Group, which encourages campus activism.
"It's a generation that was already civically minded," Rosenfeld said, citing a series of close elections that have piqued student interest, debate over Iraq and the growth of online technology. "Obama, who is charismatic and has some kind of youth mojo thing going on, steps up, and the thing takes off."
Obama's strategy is visible on the Internet, where at least 325,000 young people have signed on to his biggest support network on Facebook.com. That far outpaces support for his main rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York: Her most-active page on the social-networking Web site has just more than 19,000 members.
"We are actively working with students to organize," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said in an interview. The campaign has prepared kits for students that explain how to hold news conferences and recruit leaders.
According to a survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics released April 17, Obama, 45, leads Clinton by 17 percentage points among students, an edge that evaporates among young people who aren't in college. A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in early April found Clinton, 59, has a 10-point margin over Obama among all Democrats.
Three days before the event at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on April 22, Obama held a conference call with the heads of campus chapters. "I'm going to be counting on you to be the backbone of this campaign," he told the students. They are. While former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean drew considerable support from campuses to build crowds and recruit volunteers in 2004, the audiences Obama is drawing "break all records," said Stephanie Cutter, former communications director for Kerry.
Interviews with college students and activists suggest Obama's young supporters view him as a fresh face and a different kind of politician, representing a departure from the kind of polarizing politics practiced by the other top-tier candidates, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Obama has made ending political discord a theme of his campaign. Unlike Clinton or Edwards, who was Kerry's 2004 running-mate, he has been in national politics for only two years, and is running as a Washington outsider.
"Above everything, it's the fact that we've become so tired" of more traditional politics, said Famid Sinha, 22, a student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who is volunteering for Obama.
Obama's relative youth and multiracial heritage are part of the appeal, but students say his consistent stance against the Iraq war may be the most important factor.
Obama wasn't in the Senate in 2002, when both Edwards and Clinton voted for the resolution giving President Bush authorization to invade Iraq.
Young voters also say Obama would be better able to unwind the conflict than other candidates such as anti-war crusader Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Ohio.
"When you get done with the war, there's still going to be a divide in this country and somebody has to be able to fix that," said Farouk Olu Aregbe, 26, a university program coordinator in Columbia, Mo.
Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor who has written several books on youth protests, said student support wasn't enough to elect candidates such as McCarthy in 1968 and Dean in 2004. "There is often in these cases a rush of enthusiasm that doesn't get over the hump," he said.
Still, several factors are making student involvement more important than ever before. The most important may be technology, particularly the growth of social-networking sites MySpace and Facebook.
"Young people in particular have this ability to really move votes and organize people that I don't think they had up until this cycle," said John Della Volpe, poll director at Harvard's Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Mass.
According to the Harvard poll, 75 percent of college students have a Facebook account, and most of them check it daily. The poll also said voter turnout among those 18 to 24 grew to 47 percent in the 2004 election from 36 percent in 2000.
Isaac Baker, a Clinton spokesman, said the candidate's youth-outreach strategy is "evolving" and "only going to grow."
The Obama campaign said the students are also an increasingly important source of cash, particularly through the Internet.
While they wouldn't give specific numbers, Obama officials said students make up one of their largest donor groups.
Students are "getting into being donors," said Billy Wimsatt, executive director of the League of Young Voters, a political organization in New York.
The new technology "is what's putting it over the top."
offers some advice on how Obama can harness this support from "Generation Obama."