Michael Davidson, Republican of Berkeley, is standing in the circular, two-story foyer of a Mediterranean dream home in a gated neighborhood in Laguna Niguel, sounding every bit like a headliner at a political fundraiser -- which he is.
Davidson, 25, is running for chairman of the College Republican National Committee, a powerful grass-roots organization with thousands of members and a multimillion-dollar budget. He's in the race partly because of a fundraising controversy that has threatened to tarnish the group's reputation. And he has taken on a young man from South Dakota who was, until Davidson declared in February, heir apparent to the chairmanship.
On Saturday, at its biannual convention in Virginia, College Republicans will elect a new leader after months of charges, countercharges, endorsement switches and a blogosphere gone wild.
On this night, however, at the home of GOP activists Wayne and Linda Lindholm, Davidson does not dwell on dirty laundry. He does not mention the infamous "lapel pin letter" that brought the fundraising controversy to the forefront last year. Instead, flanked by four American flags and hand-painted signs, Davidson confidently delivers -- seemingly off the cuff -- an anecdote-rich speech about his triumphs as a conservative on a liberal campus. In Orange County -- where George Bush captured nearly 60% of the vote in 2004 -- this theme resonates.
Add to that a dash of Sept. 11 patriotism and Davidson is mining rhetorical gold:
"On Berkeley's campus after 9/11, they told us, 'You can't have red, white and blue ribbons. The American flag is divisive.' So we flipped out to say the least." Dueling press conferences ensued. And then, "The wrath of an angry nation descends upon the chancellor at Berkeley and he blinks." The College Republicans ended up distributing about 5,000 ribbons on the campus.
"Just think what it would have been like if the College Republicans hadn't been there!" says Davidson, who clearly relishes his Daniel-in-the-lion's-den image. Davidson will raise at least $1,000 at this event, but it's barely a dent in the $200,000 he estimates his campaign will cost.
So far, no one has made the leap from College Republican chairman to the Oval Office, but whoever controls the College Republicans -- and its 120,000 members on 1,148 campuses -- wields clout in real-world races, makes sterling connections and earns a black belt in the art of political combat. Former College Republican bigwigs include party luminaries and operatives such as Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (Generally, members are college students; the group's officers can either be in school, on leave or recent graduates.)
Like any good politician, Davidson couches his ambition in terms of "what's good for the party," but one question demands to be asked: Does he ever fantasize about running for president?
As he picks over a plate of pasta at a Laguna Niguel restaurant, he seems almost taken aback by the verb. "Fantasize? I don't want to set something in motion here and [have] everything dictated by that. My life has been an unexpected series of twists and turns and so I don't want to presume anything."
He doesn't have to; others will. "One more thing on that," interjects Jennie Poston, Davidson's 21-year-old chief of staff, a University of North Carolina student. "We met with a delegate from Virginia, and he called a friend of ours and said that he saw presidential seals on Michael. A lot of people say that."
Davidson grew up in Orange County and in Fort Worth, where he moved with his mother and two younger siblings when he was 16. (He is the fourth of six children, and his parents' divorce is still a painful subject.) He attended a community college (and worked in George W. Bush's first presidential campaign). He finished his last two years of college at Cal (graduating in 2003) after a friend said to him, "Oh you think you're really cool? You're a Republican in Texas.... How exciting is that? I dare you to go somewhere like Berkeley!"
He joined the Berkeley chapter of College Republicans before he even unpacked his bags, he says, and then began to get a taste of what it meant to be outside the political mainstream. (Berkeley is not the radical hotbed it once was, but it is decidedly liberal; there is one Republican state lawmaker in the entire Bay Area delegation.)
When Davidson would pass out copies of the conservative student journal, the California Patriot, students would not infrequently hurl it back at him saying things such as, "No thanks, I have toilet paper already."