On Tuesday night, supporters of various Democratic candidates spilled into a Brown University classroom to watch the Democratic presidential debate on the big screen. Students cheered when their candidates appeared on TV, and a member of each of the campus campaign groups representing four presidential hopefuls gave a short speech. Three groups sponsored the event: Students for Barack Obama, Students for Hillary -- and Students for Edwards, the newest of the three.
"Senator Edwards has established himself and continues to establish himself as the only progressive candidate," said Steve Moilanen, founder and leader of Students for Edwards.
Though Students for Edwards is not recognized as an official student organization, the group's leaders expect it to be formally established soon.
Students for Edwards currently consists of a "core group of about 10 or 12 students" that meets weekly to discuss relevant issues of outreach and event planning, Moilanen said.
Moilanen said the group aims to identify current supporters and mobilize new ones.
"As we expand our membership, we hope to hold more general body meetings," Moilanen said, describing future plans that include local canvassing and service projects and events to raise awareness about Edwards' policies.
"My biggest hope for the group is that as we draw near to the primaries -- to the early primary in New Hampshire -- that we're going to be able to send volunteers up there, do door-knocking," Moilanen said.
Though Moilanen expects to hold more functions in the future, watching the debate was the group's first major event of the year. The group did not have a booth at the Student Activities Fair in September and only began to mobilize a few weeks into the semester.
Moilanen spent last fall studying abroad in Paris, and in the spring he took time off to work at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. After working at Edwards' campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C., over the summer, Moilanen returned to Brown hoping to generate student support for Edwards. Moilanen said his time off provided him with the opportunity to work on Edwards' campaign, but it also prevented him from forming a group in the spring.
"I guess we're playing a little bit of catch-up," he said. But he doesn't think the lost time will negatively impact the group's usefulness on campus.
Moilanen said college students comprise only one of the many demographic groups that form Edwards' support, but he described Obama's electoral strategy as largely dependent on the political involvement of college students.
"Every additional support we can find here, every additional student we can bring into the campaign is great," Moilanen said. Moilanen is also reaching out to groups on other college campuses in the Northeast and assisting other student leaders with the process of organizing their groups.
Moilanen said OneCorps, an online network of local Edwards groups, was a useful tool for communication among campuses. Providence College and the University of Rhode Island have also formed groups supporting Edwards, he said.
Starting a political activist group on campus can be tricky because of the limitations the Student Activities Office sets. Current university guidelines forbid political campaigning on campus without university permission, Moilanen said.
"We can say something like, 'Hey, come find out more about Students for John Edwards.' But we can't really say, 'Come find out about John Edwards himself,'" Moilanen explained.
"I totally understand where they're coming from and the motivations for the policy, but ... it's a little bit challenging to undertake that process of mobilizing new supporters and trying to convince people that Edwards is the btter candidate when you've got all these hoops to jump through, when you're very limited in what you can say and do."
Nevertheless, Moilanen said they will do what they can to educate students about Edwards and "hopefully convert some people."
"At the end of the day for me, supporting Senator Edwards means buying into a set of ideas, a cause and the cause of progressivism," Moilanen said.
"The choice was ... a matter of who's the one carrying the mantle of progressivism in this race, (and) it became very clear to me after a couple of months that it was really Edwards rather than Obama or anyone else that was really doing it."
Moilanen listed a number of Edwards' positions -- including universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, calling for the eradication of poverty domestically and abroad and reducing America's carbon footprint -- as reasons for his support.
"He's just been so much more up-front on those issues than any other candidate," Moilanen said.
© 2007 Brown Daily Herald via U-WIRE