BARABOO, WISCONSIN - One week past her 18th birthday, Lizzie White lives for politics. She rode a bus to Washington last year to march against the invasion of Iraq, came home to organise teach-ins and walkouts against the war at her school, and this summer was elected a model senator at a government leadership programme for girls.
In her final year of high school, between Spanish and calculus and swimming team practice and planning her gap year, Ms White makes calls for a Democratic congresswoman running for re-election, and has spent the weekend wearing a volunteer's apron at Wisconsin's annual gathering of peaceniks, environmentalists and other leftwing activists.
Unless John Kerry opens a serious dialogue about the war - and how he is going to end it - he is going to have a problem capitalizing on the vote in Wisconsin from people who are skeptical of the war, and anti-war.
John Nichols, editorial page editor at the Capital Times in Madison
But while she is passionate about the need for change in the coming elections, there is one cause that Lizzie White cannot embrace with her usual dedication, and that is John Kerry.
"I will vote for Kerry, but I don't think I will work for Kerry," she said. "He doesn't grab my heart and say he is someone I need to work for."
There are a lot of young people like Lizzie White in Wisconsin. She is convinced that hers is the new activist generation, a view confirmed by the Pew Research Centre, whose polling has detected more interest in the elections than at almost any time since 1972, when the voting age in America was lowered to 18.
In Wisconsin, one of the three states in the midwest that could well decide these elections, voter registration groups have added more than 74,000 people to the electoral rolls, most of them young.
By rights that should help Mr Kerry with an electorate which returned Al Gore by just 5,800 votes.
Although the state has a wild streak - it produced the communist witch-hunting Joe McCarthy as well as Tammy Baldwin, the first openly lesbian congresswoman - it has backed Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1988.
But after weeks of intense campaigning, a CNN/USA Today poll last week showed Mr Kerry falling behind George Bush in Wisconsin by eight percentage points.
That seems unthinkable at first in a state which has a strong independent streak and a history of political activism. During the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin at Madison was a centre of tumultuous protest against the Vietnam war, with students regularly taking to the streets to demonstrate against the Pentagon and its corporate cronies.
Memories of those glory days brought a lot of the old activists back to the fold during the run-up to the war in Iraq. The invasion spawned more than 50 peace groups, bringing together people of Lizzie's age and an older generation.
"We were supposed to settle these things in the 60s when we marched the first time," said one activist, Arlene Wilson, from Cudahy, a satellite town of Milwaukee, at an annual meeting for progressive groups in the town of Baraboo. "Things didn't get taken care of, so I am back again."
While feeling against the war runs highest in the liberal bastion of Madison, misgivings about sending US troops overseas rippled across a state which, a thousand miles from either US coast, has developed a tradition of isolationism.
"In Wisconsin, there is an anti-war base larger and more organised than any other state," said John Nichols, editorial page editor at the Capital Times in Madison. "I don't think there is a town in the state where you have to hide the fact that you were against the war."
The anti-war signs are still plastered around the campus, and anti-Bush paraphernalia is on sale at the nearby radical shops. Democratic campaign workers are handing out Kerry stickers every few hundred yards. On one of the last days of summer, a trio of law students are revising in the sunshine. All of them see the war as the predominant issue in these elections.
"I think this election is going to make people our age vote more," said Kristen Kreple, 22, from the town of Sheboygan.
"It gets really heated," said Cathi Bartling, 22. At times, the arguments turn so fiery that they put an embargo on talking politics. Somehow, though, the excitement fails to transfer to Mr Kerry's candidacy. "There are a lot of people, especially our age, that are going to vote for anybody but Bush," said Ruhee Divgi, 22.
Commentators believe that Mr Kerry has made a number of disastrous decisions in this campaign. In autumn 2002 he took what seemed the politically expedient course and voted to give Mr Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. This year, after voting for the war, he voted against an $87bn spending bill for the troops.
"Unless John Kerry opens a serious dialogue about the war - and how he is going to end it - he is going to have a problem capitalising on the vote in Wisconsin from people who are sceptical of the war, and anti-war," Mr Nichols said.
Frustration with Mr Kerry's incoherence on the issue is now openly acknowledged among his colleagues in the Senate, who say it is time for him to take a stand. In effect, they are longing for Mr Kerry to return to the persona he inhabited during the Vietnam war when, as a returning navy lieutenant, he delivered a speech against America's military misadventure.
"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" the younger Mr Kerry said, in his 1971 testimony to the Senate foreign relations committee.
On the campaign trail for Mr Kerry in Wisconsin at the weekend, his friend, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, practically begged Mr Kerry to reprise those words. "I want him to say, 'How many more young American boys have to die now?'" Mr Harkin told the Guardian. "He has to take Bush on for misleading the US into the war on Iraq."
Mr Harkin believes that Wisconsin, and the other battleground states of the midwest, are impatient to see a more aggressive candidate. "Kerry has to draw a brighter line," he said. "People need to know more about what the next four years as president are going to be like. It seems to me like he has to clearly delineate."
That sense of desperation has now begun to trickle down from the Senate to the rural hinterland of Wisconsin. The northern reaches of the state are generally more conservative than the urban centres of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
Tony Ziesler, a retired maths teacher and engineer from the town of Ladysmith, calls it hunter country. Democrats are usually thin on the ground. But, to his delight, over the last few months there has been a rebirth of the party. At county Democrat meetings, typically supported by Mr Ziesler and three or four of his friends, attendance has swollen to 40 or 50.
The votes are there for the Democrats; Mr Ziesler is convinced of it. "If he could at least come out and say, 'I am going to stop the war,' that would be a resounding message for the people," he said. "We still need a single message."
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers Ltd.