Third-party candidates may find themselves out in the cold as they try to court young voters this year.

Just ask 21-year-old Ross Colebrook. The American University junior from Nampa, Idaho, is backing Sen. Barack Obama in the primary race but would support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she were the Democratic nominee before he’d consider voting for a third party.

“I think third parties are a positive thing in general,” he said. “The problem in the U.S. is that the system is set up in such a way that it hurts the major two parties.”

Colebrook is among those who see third-party candidates as spoilers, a view that, coupled with a renewed excitement for major party candidates, is draining key support from third parties in 2008.

“It’s always been the case that third parties’ support comes disproportionately from younger voters because their ties to the major parties are not as strong,” said Jeffrey Koch, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

According to a survey in January by The Associated Press and Yahoo, 18- to 29-year-olds were evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with each party getting a little more than one-third of all respondents. Twenty-five percent were undecided about whom they would support in a general election.

While that 25 percent might seem encouraging to third parties, the poll also found that 58 percent of those aged 18 to 29 were either “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to support a third-party candidate.

Michael Imbrenda, a 20-year-old American University student from Philadelphia, said he flirted with the idea of voting for a third-party candidate. Although he agrees with the Libertarian Party’s aims, for example, he doesn’t believe it is strong enough to win.

“If they don’t have the momentum, even if you give them the ideological vote, it’s not enough in the winner-take-all Electoral College system,” Imbrenda said.

A strong conservative on national defense and trade, Imbrenda said he dislikes both Democratic candidates and is planning to vote for Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Koch said another reason support for third-party candidates is waning is the dynamics of this year’s presidential race. Strong support for the Democratic candidates, especially Obama, has energized young and first-time voters to turn out in primaries and caucuses.

In addition, there are no particularly strong third-party candidates who have distinguished themselves from the major party candidates this year, Koch said. The possible candidacies of Ralph Nader, former Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia and former Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia have the potential to grab some support from young voters, he said, but probably will not.

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