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College Try

The race for College Republican chairman was heated but empty.

"That's him over there." It's just after noon on the day before delegates to the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) are scheduled to elect a new chairman, and campaign workers for Michael Davidson have finally spotted his opponent, the current CRNC treasurer Paul Gourley. The College Republicans have taken over a floor of the Crystal Gateway Marriot in Arlington, Virginia, clogging hallways and conference rooms with professional-quality campaign paraphernalia and well-coiffed twentysomethings in business attire. But they've mostly avoided the pricey Sky View restaurant, and the sudden sight of Gourley lunching beneath the vast skylights of the dining area provokes a collective harrumph among members of the Davidson camp. "He's so status quo," says Cameron Ryffel, the state chairman of the Idaho College Republicans. "Can you see who he's talking to?"

The race for the CRNC chairmanship happens every two years at the College Republicans' elaborate three-day meetings. Last time around, in 2003, Eric Hoplin got the nod after running uncontested. His tenure, however, has been blighted by a fundraising scandal involving the organization's direct-mail solicitations, which brought in millions of dollars in contributions during the last election cycle. When accusations of financial misconduct emerged at the end of last year, many local CRNC chapters began complaining of corruption at the top. (Hoplin tried to enforce unity by darkly warning state leaders in an email that they "need[ed] the story to go away.") That discontent set in motion the unusually contentious contest between Davidson, who is chairman of the California College Republicans, and Gourley.

In January, Davidson began positioning himself as a much needed change of pace for the CRNC, while Gourley staked his appeal on his experience and internal know-how. The candidates spent the last several months traveling to different states in order to shore up support among local leaders, with Davidson trying to implicate Gourley in the direct-mail fiasco and Gourley attempting to portray Davidson as a smooth-talking upstart. (Some College Republicans even took to calling the match-up "slick versus hick.") But as members of both camps admit, there are not really any ideological differences between Davidson and Gourley. Campaigning at the meeting was largely an exercise in tactics and strategy, spending money and pressing flesh, making friends and giving away free stuff. In terms of intellectual content, the dialogue between the two candidates is negligible. Policy holds little sway; the ambition of most CRNC insiders, one delegate told me, is to become "the next Karl Roves." Ideas, it seems, are out of vogue among young Republicans.

The election is not the only event at the CRNC conference, but it is by far the most prominent. Most attendees skipped the chance to listen to Tony Perkins and David Horowitz spout off bromides about the future of the GOP in the main room. Outside, however, the hallways were crowded with campaign workers distributing fact sheets about the candidates and plying tired delegates with water bottles emblazoned with "GOURLEY" or "DAVIDSON." Despite the heavy canvassing, there seemed to be no swing vote to speak of. On the eve of the election, nearly every attendee was sporting a sticker for his or her candidate of choice. "Almost everybody comes here knowing who they're going to vote for," said Rose Capozzi, the chair of the Maryland delegation.

That hardly deterred either campaign. Davidson loyalists, eschewing the CRNC corporate dress code in favor of jeans and baseball jerseys, claimed a prime spot near the escalator. Most of their campaign signs and banners didn't bother to invoke the candidate's name. Instead, they read, "YOUR CRNC--EVERY COLLEGE REPUBLICAN COUNTS!" Team Davidson had decided to sponsor a free lunch featuring an open bar and gift bags "worth fifty dollars," so giving out invitations was one of the main tasks at hand that morning. The Gourley people, meanwhile, passed around more traditional campaign literature, promising "proven leadership [and] positive vision."

This difference in the style, if not the substance, of the campaigns was the most crucial distinction between the candidates. Preferring formality to fun, Gourley seemed to symbolize the idea that the CRNC's main task is to inculcate a younger generation with the mores of Republican political life--suits, ties, business lunches, and dues-paying. Davidson, by contrast, seemed more likely to reach out to the party's "Hipublican" wing (as The New York Times Magazine once memorably labeled the young breed of non-stuffy conservative). "The whole point of College Republicans is to gain support for the Republican party," one Davidson supporter told me. "To do that you have to reach out to all sorts of college kids. ... If we can get people interested in the party by wearing T-shirts and jeans, then that's what we do."

Meeting to debate on the eve of the election, Gourley and Davidson brought this contrast to a fine point. The Davidson supporters in the audience were loud and raucous, interrupting Gourley with hisses and cackling. When Gourley began to answer a question about past CRNC mistakes, one young man yelled, "like stealing money from old people." But the one question about political philosophy solicited almost identical answers from the candidates. "There's no doubt I'm a conservative," Davidson said. "We're both Republicans," Gourley noted. They had nothing but strategy and personality to win votes. Plus the posh post-debate parties each side was throwing.

When the delegates gathered to vote the next day, Gourley triumphed by a slim margin. Immediately a controversy surfaced. The chair of the Virginia College Republicans was accused of summarily replacing her state's delegates after the original group had declared its intention to support Davidson. Gourley, the Davidson camp complained, had bullied local leaders into following him. "We're graceful losers," said one Davidson supporter. Another added, "It's not like we don't pretty much think the same way anyway." And that's exactly the problem.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.