Can Falwell's University Tip Virginia To McCain?

On Sept. 10, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. delivered a high-minded message to the students at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The son of the late evangelical leader spoke of the students' civic responsibility to vote. Then he made an announcement.

"We are planning to cancel classes on Election Day," he said, his voice instantly drowned out by wild cheering. "Now I know what you care about," he observed, laughing.

It's part of a grand strategy to get Liberty's 10,000 students to vote in Virginia. The university will bus students to the polls, stage an all-day concert complete with food, and lift curfew so they can watch the results on a giant-screen TV.

For the past 44 years, Virginia has been a reliably Republican state. But this year, the presidential race is a tossup. Polls put Democrat Barack Obama slightly ahead of Republican John McCain.

"We never told them how to vote," Falwell says. "We never even talked about the issues. We just talked about the fact that Virginia was right on the fence and could go either way — and that they could become known as the college that elected a president if the numbers came down just right."

New Virginia Voters

Falwell says 80 percent to 90 percent of his students are Republican. But not all are registered to vote in Virginia. So the school told dorm leaders like Kathryn Lewellyn to see to it that everyone had the proper forms.

"We had to go around that night to every room and make sure if anybody wanted to register, they could," she recalls. "Even in class the next day, for commuters, if they didn't get registration forms, the professors were handing them out."

And it worked. Junior Sarah Blanzy, for example, switched her registration from North Carolina to Virginia. The reason was simple.

"North Carolina is going to go red," she says. "I'm not really too worried about that, and I am nervous about the outcome of Virginia. I feel like my vote may be a little more important here."

Of the 15 students interviewed at the university's Jesse Helms School of Government, 13 had registered in Virginia; the other two retained their registration in their home states, because they wanted to vote on issues like same-sex marriage and sex education in public schools.

Senior Grace Woodson, who attended the Republican National Convention, says Obama's dynamism may appeal to some young people. But students at Liberty look for something else: conservative values.

"I think with McCain, he proves with his life his Christian values, and his whole life has been about sacrifice. I think that's something that us Christians see as really important."

And with Obama leading slightly in the polls, junior Chandler Smith says, no vote can be wasted. Smith switched his registration from Georgia, a safe red state, to Virginia. He notes that several recent state elections — for governor, attorney general and U.S. senator — were decided by fewer than 10,000 votes.

"Based upon the numbers, moving conservative voters ... from across the nation to a swing state like Virginia, where we are all like-minded — when we all vote the same way, it could have a significant impact on the election," Smith says.

Obama Supporters

Are there any Democrats at Liberty?

"I've seen them," says Danielle Fierro, "and I knew one, but he transferred."

Eventually, two Obama supporters are located, not through the College Democrats club — there isn't one here — but through the Obama campaign. Asked what his classmates say when they find out he's voting Democrat, Brian Diaz, a freshman from Orlando, Fla., laughs. "At first they asked me, 'Are you a Christian?' "

But Diaz and sophomore Joel Krautter believe they're making inroads. Recently, they manned an Obama table on campus, and Krautter says they were thrilled with the results.

"Oh, we had a great turnout here," he says. "We had an astounding number of people sign up for the campaign."

How many? Krautter thinks for a minute. "Like, 150."

Well, it's a start. And both men believe Virginia can go blue.

But not if the majority of Liberty students have anything to say about it.

Late Tuesday night, 50 women crowded into a large dormitory room for their weekly hall meeting of announcements. Then resident assistant Lewellyn raised the recurring topic.

"How many of you guys have registered to vote?" she asked. All but three women raised their hands.

Those last few stragglers have until the end of Monday to sign up.

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