The presumptive Republican nominee has delivered few youth-oriented proposals at a time when most young voters favor the Democrats' positions on the Iraq war and economic issues, and when his Democratic rivals for the presidency have pumped out detailed policy papers on other issues of top concern to the under-30 set, including education and national service.
The Arizona senator's declaration last month at Villanova University that he'll pursue young voters generated a lot of media buzz, especially since a growing proportion of young voters appear to be leaning Democratic.
But that hasn't always been the case: Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of young voters in 1984.
While stepping up his youth outreach with events like the one at Villanova, McCain only recently began releasing proposals aimed at young voters, starting with measures to reduce global warming. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois have courted the youth vote since last year by releasing action plans on issues such as global warming and education.
Jessica Colon, who chairs the Young Republican National Federation, said McCain has held off because the Democrats are still in a competitive primary. "When we get into the general you will see flood of platform pieces from the McCain campaign," she said.
Last week McCain touted his "green" credentials, launching his "environmental week" with a speech at a wind turbine producer in Portland, Ore., where he outlined his approach to combat global warming.
Young environmental activists applaud McCain for breaking with much of his party on the issue. "I'm definitely glad to see the candidates are putting forward proposals on global warming," said Katherine McEachern, 21, a student at Cornell University, who is active in KyotoNOW!, a campus advocacy group on global warming issues.
But she and other activists believe McCain's proposal falls short. "We need bolder numbers," said Andrew Nazdin, 19, a student at the University of Maryland and member of the Maryland Student Climate Coalition. "McCain wants a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 but we need an 80 percent reduction."
Recent polling suggests McCain faces an uphill battle with young voters. Most matchups show him trailing his Democratic rivals. An April 21 MTV survey of 18-to-29-year-old voters showed Obama beating McCain 52 percent to 39 percent, while Clinton led McCain 51 percent to 41 percent. An April 25 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed Obama beating McCain among 18-to-24-year-olds, 50 percent to 29 percent; Clinton beat McCain 41 percent to 34 percent with the same age group.
"McCain is not speaking to young people's issues," said Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa who runs the Institute of Politics. "The feelings are deep on the war and they are finding it hard to get a job. He has been embracing the legacy of this administration and moving to the right of it when youth want a change in direction."
Surveys show similar trends in party identification. An April 28 survey by the Pew research center found that 58 percent of voters under 30 years old identified themselves as Democrats, while 43 percent said they were Republican. That gap has widened since the 2004 presidential election, when Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts carried voters the same age group by nine points over President George Bush.
Those partisan preferences reflect young voters' top concerns: the economy and the war in Iraq. According to an April 21 national poll of 18-to-29 year-olds by MTV/CBS, the economy and the war in Iraq remain the first and second most important issues.
McCain faces a serious challenge with young people regarding his positions on Iraq. Two-thirds of the voters in the MTV poll want a president who will withdraw from Irq in two years or less. Yet McCain does not advocate nearly as swift a withdrawal as Obama or Clinton.
Also on the top five list of important issues to youth are education, the environment and health care. (McCain has not released his education proposals but will do so this summer, a campaign adviser said.)
On health care, a poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation showed 56 percent of young people say they want presidential candidates to offer a plan that would provide health insurance to all or nearly all of the uninsured, even if it meant a substantial increase in spending (as both Democratic candidates do.) McCain advocates deregulation and tax credits for purchasing private health care.
But the McCain campaign is moving to ameliorate some of young voters' economic insecurity. McCain has talked with young voters about ensuring that today's credit crunch doesn't reduce access to student college loans, said campaign spokesman Joseph Pounder.
Colon is confident that young people will prefer McCain's proposals, which include tax cuts. "Most young people are going to be paying the majority of taxes for everybody," she said.
And McCain's campaign aides and supporters believe he'll appeal to young voters in another area: national service. "John McCain has constantly spoken to the need for young Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest," Pounder wrote in an e-mail. "This is a call that John McCain will continue to make and engage young voters on."
McCain often exhorts young audiences to serve in the military or a program like AmeriCorps, although he has not proposed expanding national service opportunities.
McCain declined to sign onto a new GI Bill by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would greatly expand educational benefits for military service members. Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships at MTV, who worked on service programs in the Bush administration, said that the Webb bill is "an important piece of legislation" for young people.
McCain said he opposes Webb's bill because he fears that it would create an incentive not to re-enlist and thereby deplete the military's ranks. He would prefer a system that would peg the level of benefits to the number of years served to encourage longer enlistments.
The Clinton and Obama campaigns both released national service plans that would expand AmeriCorps and similar programs last year. And both are cosponsoring Webb's bill. Obama has also taken the additional step of offering an annual tax credit for college tuition for students willing to perform 100 hours of community service.
The McCain campaign did not offer details on when it might release a national service plan or what it might entail.
He is already using youth-oriented social networking to push his environmental and global warming plans, however. McCain's Facebook and MySpace groups are growing, although they still lag far behind the Obama Internet phenomenon.
"Young people very much value candidates speaking directly to their issues and engaging them," said MTV's Rowe. "No candidate should assume youth vote is locked up. McCain should make his case.