As I settled in my seat for an afternoon of speeches at the College Republican National Convention, I felt something crunch. It was an empty can of Busch Light, one of many strewn across the paisley-carpeted floor of the banquet hall in northern Virginia’s Crystal City Gateway Marriott. All around me sat the Republican Party’s future leaders: fresh-faced, nondescript white guys in blue suits, and slender blond girls in miniskirts and snug-fitting blazers, some with halter tops underneath. Later, these conservative cadres would vote for the next chairman of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC). It was the closest race since 1973, when a bespectacled boy genius named Karl Rove was elected.

On June 24 conventiongoers were treated to speeches from conservative stars like House majority leader Tom DeLay; antitax zealot Grover Norquist, who called Senator John McCain a “nut job” for compromising on Bush’s judge picks; and black right-winger Jesse Lee Peterson, who announced that “most black people–not all, but most–can’t think for themselves.” The high point of the day, however, belonged to the movement’s favorite red-diaper baby, David Horowitz. Horowitz reminded his fawning audience that he could “be sitting at home in the coastal mountains of California, watching horses and rabbits run across my neighbor’s yard.” Instead he chose to appear for free before a bunch of College Republicans because, as he told them, “The future of the free peoples of the world depends on the Republican Party–and ultimately it depends on you.”

In the past year, Horowitz has barnstormed universities across the country, organizing smear campaigns against leftist professors, advising conservative students on tactics to harass their perceived opponents and all the while raking in massive lecture fees. At the College Republicans’ convention, Horowitz harped on his time-tested theme: “Universities are a base of the left. Universities are a base for terrorism.”

To prove his point, Horowitz singled out Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor on trial for allegedly funneling money to Palestinian terror groups through his now-defunct think tank. Horowitz neglected to mention that Norquist, the College Republicans’ former executive director and a speaker earlier that morning, funded Al-Arian’s think tank through his own Islamic Institute, which he founded with seed money from Qatar, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern sources, including a self-described supporter of Hezbollah, Abdurahman Almoudi. Horowitz was also mum about Al-Arian’s private June 2001 briefing with Karl Rove, who last week accused liberals of wanting “to offer therapy and understanding” for the 9/11 attackers. Nor did Horowitz mention the photo-op that candidate George W. Bush posed for with Al-Arian during the 2000 campaign. Nor did he note that Al-Arian boasted that he helped win the state of Florida for Bush by pulling its 90,000 Muslim votes into the Republican column.

But these facts were beside the point. Indeed, Horowitz’s campus crusade has little to do with fighting actual terrorism. If his work has produced any results at all, they are manifested not in the waning influence of terror lovers on campus–whoever they are–but in the acute sense of mission that drives today’s young conservatives. By Horowitz’s logic, College Republicans fight terrorism when they respond to professors who compare conservatives to Nazis by staging sit-ins in their offices, which he advised conventiongoers to do. And they are beating back the Iraqi insurgency when they demand that their university budget more money toward bringing conservative speakers (like Horowitz) to campus, which he also advised them to do. This equation holds a special appeal among College Republicans who are loath to risk their lives on the battlefield but don’t want to feel that they are missing the action either.

In interviews, more than a dozen conventiongoers explained why it is important that they stay on campus while other, less fortunate people their age wage a bloody war in Iraq. They strongly support the war, they told me, but they also want to enjoy college life and pursue interesting careers. Being a College Republican allows them to do both. It is warfare by other, much safer means.

After the day’s speeches, I was whisked down a hotel hallway by a guy in a baseball jersey with “Davidson” emblazoned on the back who promised me free food and drinks. Soon I was in a bright banquet hall with dozens of young Republicans. Open bars were set up in two corners of the room; in the center of the room was a catered, Mexican-style grill; on the walls, 1980s kitsch videos played on plasma TVs; in the air, the sound of suburban country music. It was all paid for by Mike Davidson, the former head of the University of California, Berkeley College Republicans and the insurgent candidate in the race for CRNC chairman. Let’s get the party started.

I chatted for a while with Collin Kelley, a senior at Washington State with a vague resemblance to the studly actor Orlando Bloom. Kelley told me he’s “sick and tired of people saying our troops are dying in vain” and added, “This isn’t an invasion of Iraq, it’s a liberation–as David Horowitz said.” When I asked him why he was staying on campus rather than fighting the good fight, he rubbed his shoulder and described a nagging football injury from high school. Plus, his parents didn’t want him to go. “They’re old hippies,” Kelley said.

Munching on a chicken quesadilla at a table nearby was Edward Hauser, a senior at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas–a liberal school in a liberal town in the ultimate red state of Texas. “Austin is ninety square miles insulated from reality,” Hauser said. When I broached the issue of Iraq, he replied, “I support our country. I support our troops.” So why isn’t he there?

“I know that I’m going to be better staying here and working to convince people why we’re there [in Iraq],” Hauser explained, pausing in thought. “I’m a fighter, but with words.”

At a table by the buffet was Justin Palmer, vice chairman of the Georgia Association of College Republicans, America’s largest chapter of College Republicans. In 1984 the group gained prominence in conservative circles when its chairman, Ralph Reed, formed a political action committee credited with helping to re-elect Senator Jesse Helms. Palmer’s future as a right-wing operative looked bright; he batted away my question about his decision to avoid fighting the war he supported with the closest thing I heard to a talking point all afternoon. “The country is like a body,” Palmer explained, “and each part of the body has a different function. Certain people do certain things better than others.” He said his “function” was planning a “Support Our Troops” day on campus this year in which students honored military recruiters from all four branches of the service.

Standing by Palmer’s side and sipping a glass of rose wine, University of Georgia Republican member Kiera Ranke said she played her part as well. She and her sorority sisters sent care packages to troops in Iraq along with letters and pictures of themselves. “They wrote back and told us we boosted their morale,” she said.

By the time I encountered Cory Bray, a towering senior from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the beer was flowing freely. “The people opposed to the war aren’t putting their asses on the line,” Bray boomed from beside the bar. Then why isn’t he putting his ass on the line? “I’m not putting my ass on the line because I had the opportunity to go to the number-one business school in the country,” he declared, his voice rising in defensive anger, “and I wasn’t going to pass that up.”

And besides, being a College Republican is so much more fun than counterinsurgency warfare. Bray recounted the pride he and his buddies had felt walking through the center of campus last fall waving a giant American flag, wearing cowboy boots and hats with the letters B-U-S-H painted on their bare chests. “We’re the big guys,” he said. “We’re the ones who stand up for what we believe in. The College Democrats just sit around talking about how much they hate Bush. We actually do shit.”

When 25-year-old candidate Mike Davidson emerged in the center of the room, the party fell to a hush. “Does everybody know why we’re here today?” Davidson asked his supporters, who had huddled around him.

“Beer!” someone shouted. The crowd exploded with laughter.

Davidson became the stuff of legend for his activity in the liberal hotbed of Berkeley. As secretary of the California College Republicans, he built dozens of chapters in schools throughout California, helped deliver a record turnout for Bush in the state and organized a now-famous “pro-America” rally in People’s Park. His candidacy has been endorsed by Representative David Dreier and Ann Coulter, who hailed him as a pioneer of “the new McCarthyism.” And with good reason. Last February, in a Horowitz-inspired redbaiting operation, College Republicans at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California posted fliers on the doors of ten professors’ offices bearing a red star and a warning quoting a 1950s-era state education code forbidding “the advocacy and teaching of communism.” One professor’s crime was displaying a poster for the film Fahrenheit 9/11 in his office window. Soon after, a press release appeared on the California College Republicans’ website identifying the stunt as “Operation Red Scare.”

“Yeah, I could see that going further,” Davidson told journalist John Gorenfeld, referring to the red stars on professors’ doors. “A lot of the college professors are leftovers from the 1970s–and communist sympathizers.” (Davidson refused my interview request but assured me it was because he was “slammed” with other press calls, not because of my affiliation with The Nation. “I’m from Berkeley,” he told me. “I know how to talk to you guys.”)

Not to be outdone by his opponent’s petty pranks, CRNC front-runner and University of South Dakota senior Paul Gourley was at the center of a controversial fundraising scheme. During the height of last year’s campaign, a firm hired by the CRNC sent repeated solicitation letters printed on “Republican Headquarters 2004″ letterhead to elderly Republicans, some of whom suffered from dementia. The letter urged recipients to pray over an American flag lapel pin, then send it back–along with $1,000–so George W. Bush could wear it during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The solicitation was signed by “Paul Gourley, National Director.” Though Gourley denied knowledge of the letter’s content until it was published, it cast a cloud over his candidacy.

Davidson’s supporters filed out of his party in good spirits. The race was going down to the wire and Gourley, who was virtually assured victory last year, was sweating it out. Though Davidson would later lose to Gourley by six votes, then allege a sinister vote-rigging scheme, hopes were still high. He paced up and down the hallway with a cell phone pressed to his ear, offering reporters some of his last remarks as a candidate. Nearby, his staff was making its final preparations. Gourley had accepted Davidson’s challenge to a debate. The two would go toe-to-toe that evening.

It was war.