DES MOINES, Iowa — Amina Kader is only 17, but as the leader of the Barack Obama student group at Hoover High School, she's a foot soldier in the Democratic presidential candidate's infantry in the first state to vote.
All the major candidates in both parties are courting young voters to varying degrees, especially on college campuses. But Obama — who polls indicate has the most to gain if students show up to caucus in Iowa — appears to be building an unmatched network throughout Iowa's high schools.
His campaign Web site lists 144 Iowa high schools with Obama student groups. That's 40 percent of the state's public high schools, and it translates to thousands of teens who say they're committed to caucusing for Obama. The group at Hoover High has about 25 active members.
On the Web site, students can check out a map and a pull-down bar with contact information about their schools' Obama groups or how to start one. Iowans as young as 17 can caucus provided they'll turn 18 by next year's general election.
It's a significant pool: An estimated 38,500 high schoolers are eligible to caucus in the state's 1,784 precincts, including in rural areas where a handful of unexpected participants can sway the results. That's comparable to the combined student populations of Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.
Overall, Iowa has roughly 2 million registered voters, but fewer than one in five typically turn out to caucus.
Obama's high school turnout effort is driven partly by resources — he has enough young adult volunteers in Iowa to assign them to work with schools — and partly by the campaign's uncertainty about how the timing of this year's caucuses could affect the already unreliable college vote.
The Jan. 3 vote falls smack in the middle of campus holiday breaks, and the Orange Bowl is on TV that night, featuring the neighbor-state University of Kansas.
One theory has it that this could help less traditional candidates such as Obama, a biracial first-term Illinois senator, by scattering college voters home to smaller precincts where their votes could count more than they would in more populous areas.
The counter-theory says that most out-of-state students won't return to school early just to caucus, and that many in-state students will be away on vacation, so the college-student turnout will be even lower than usual.
In 2004, 18-to-24-year-olds constituted only 3.9 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa. There aren't comparable numbers for Republicans, because President Bush was running unopposed for re-election. Despite Democrat Howard Dean's wild popularity with many young voters, not many turned out and his bid fizzled.
This year, college Democratic and Republican clubs are scurrying to boost turnout by organizing carpools for out-of-state students who want to come back to caucus, handing out pamphlets explaining that in-state students can caucus in hometown precincts and lobbying their campuses to reopen for a day or two.
Still, Chelsea Hottovy, 21, a student at Drake University in Des Moines whose family lives in Nebraska, says she has strong feelings about the election but no plans to caucus: "I don't really understand what gets accomplished, so I don't really feel like it's that good a use of my time."
"Maybe this year will be different, but the track record is not good," said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake. "It would shock me if there were a major increase. Students just aren't that attached to the electoral process."
But high school students?
Their winter breaks are much shorter and they live with their parents, so they're more likely to be home to caucus.
"It might be easier to get those kids to caucus than college students," said David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
Some Iowa high school civics teachers are requiring that seniors caucus or volunteer a certain number of hours with a campaign of their choice. That includes Kader's second-period government teacher, Kirk Stevens.
"The war is a big issue," Stevens said. "But also they've got the possibility to make some inroads with a female president, a black president, a Hispanic president or a Mormon. I'm trying to emphasize how important that is."
In national and state polls — and in Stevens' classes at Hoover High — Obama is the students' favorite.
Kader, who's met Obama twice and says his local student field representative visits the school regularly, argues that it's not just Obama's relative youth at 46, symbolism or his stances that she finds appealing.
"I think most younger people are supporting him because of how much attention he's paying to us," she said.
To be sure, Iowa high school students are involved in other campaigns.
Ted Mathews, 18, plans to caucus for Republican Ron Paul because "he's willing to take a stand." Alija Vrapac, 17, who just became a citizen, likes Democrat Bill Richardson, who has a Mexican mother and an American father. Armin Avdic, 17, says he'll caucus for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. But students generally saw Obama's high school outreach as the most pervasive, regardless of whom they support.
A recent Harvard University poll found that young adult Democrats who didn't attend college were more inclined nationally to support Clinton. That poll found young Republicans favoring Rudy Giuliani regardless of their educational status, although a recent poll of Iowa State University students put Republicans Paul, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee ahead of Giuliani.
As for high-school activist Kader, one of the voters she's been working hardest to convince is her own mom.
"She can't make up her mind between Edwards and Obama," Kader said. "She is leaning towards Obama, but she's a little unsure."