Many youth activists are furious with the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for suggesting that college students who did not grow up in Iowa should not caucus there in January - and they are delivering that message both publicly and privately.
"It's terrible to have candidates making misleading statements about whether or not students can caucus," said Alexandra Acker, executive director of the Young Democrats of America.
"I'm very worried about the caucus-day implications of this," Acker said, concerned that discouraging students from caucusing will make an existing problem worse. "Students are disenfranchised at higher rates to begin with."
Young Voter PAC, another Democratic youth organization, has also responded aggressively. The political action committee, which works with Democratic candidates to engage young voters, founded the Facebook group "Hey Clinton, Stop Telling Young Voters to Stay Home."
Rock the Vote issued a statement encouraging students from out of state to vote. Student PIRGs Young Voters Project put out a release from a number of its student leaders in Iowa saying, "We live here in Iowa for the majority of the year. ... To say that students who didn't grow up in Iowa, but who now live here, shouldn't have the choice to participate in the caucuses is blatant voter disenfranchisement."
The argument centers on whether to encourage Iowa college students from out of state to caucus in Iowa - as the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is doing - or to frown at it, as the Clinton and Dodd campaigns have hinted at.
Drawing an implicit contrast with the Obama campaign, Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said, "We are not systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people; we don't have literature recruiting out-of-state college students."
And Dodd's Iowa state Director Julie Andreeff Jensen accused Obama of "scheming to evade either the spirit or the letter of the rules that guide the process."
By last week, it seemed that youth activists like Acker had made some headway when both campaigns released statements saying that all eligible voters should caucus. But both candidates and their surrogates have continued to sound ambiguous notes since then.
Dodd declared that students who did not grow up in Iowa should not caucus, saying, "If you're from Hartford, Conn., and you're going to school at the University of Iowa, and you're paying out-of-state tuition, you're [unfairly] casting yourself as an Iowan."
David Yepsen, the influential Des Moines Register columnist, criticized the Obama campaign Dec. 1 for distributing a pamphlet informing student supporters that even if they are out of state on Jan. 3 they can return to Iowa and caucus at their school precinct.
Yepsen wrote, "These are the Iowa caucuses. Asking people who are 'not from Iowa' to participate in them changes the nature of the event."
Yepsen himself admits that it's legal for any student at a four-year college in Iowa to vote. The Iowa secretary of state posts information on how students can caucus from their campus address.
But the Clinton and Dodd campaigns seized on the opening to appeal to older Iowans' potential resentment of Obama's support from young people by issuing statements echoing Yepsen's sentiments.
And Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) said the Obama campaign was "tamper[ing] with the caucus."
Then on Monday former President Bill Clinton waffled in response to a question at Grinnell College in Iowa about whether Sen. Clinton wanted Grinnell students from out of state to caucus for her.
Clinton revealed the campaign's new line of attack on students from out of state by saying, "If this is your primary political identity then you should vote, but if it isn't and you're going to turn right back around and vote in a primary the next day then you shouldn't because it means that your primary identity is not in Iowa."
The Hillary campaign has since issued a statement encouraging students to vote provided they don't fraudulently participate in both their home state primary and the caucuses.
The Clinton campaign did not provide evidence that this has ever happened, or explain the cause of their sudden concern about it, when asked by Politico.
Alec Schierenbeck, 20, is the president of College and Young Democrats of Iowa and said he intends to caucus, though he is undecided on a candidate.
Schierenbeck, a junior at Grinnell who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., was in the audience and said he was horrified by Clinton's answer.
"This is a Republican tactic," said Schierenbeck, citing the campaign of Danny Carroll, the former Republican state representative for Grinnell's district.
He sent a mailing in his 2004 reelection campaign that asked, "[W]hy would you let 1,000 east-coast liberal kids elect your representative?" in reference to Grinnell students. (In fact, less than half Grinnell's 1,400 students are from East Coast states.)
Schierenbeck is hardly the only politically involved student from out of state in Iowa. As Politico has reported, the co-chair of Hillary Clinton's University of Iowa student chapter, Nikki Dziuban, is from Illinois.
She intends to caucus for Clinton and will bring other Iowa students from Illinois back to school over winter break with her.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's campaign has drawn criticism from other campaigns for refusing to sign a pledge saying that campaign workers who moved to Iowa to work for him will not caucus.
But the Richardson camp has also said that it will not encourage student supporters who grew up out of state to come back for the caucuses. Richardson's spokesman Tom Reynolds suggests that doing so violates "the spirit of the law."
Obama, meanwhile, has not backed down. Campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Politico in an e-mail, "We should be encouraging young people to participate in the political process - not looking for ways to shut them out."
"We don't have a student over-engagement problem in this country, we have an under-engagement problem. Every elected official should take every opportunity to encourage young people to vote."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated on Dec. 13 to note that Bill Clinton's comments did include a remark specifying that he was talking about caucusing in Iowa and voting in another state's primary election.
It was also updated to clarify details about the question posed to President Clinton. The question was not asked by a Clinton-supporting student from Minnesota, but by a student from Nebraska who does not support Clinton. The confusion arose because his question was about a friend of his from Minnesota who received an invitation to the event from the Clinton campaign.
© 2007 Politico.com