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Local teen gets front-row seat for Republican convention

Hank Hayes • Sep 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Imagine you’re 19 years old with a front-row seat watching live political theater of the highest order with America’s future direction at stake.

Kingsport’s Stephen Sebastian, Tennessee’s second-youngest Republican National Convention delegate, was actually far away from the stage with the rest of the state’s delegation at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., but that’s the way he apparently liked it.

“The dirty little secret was the guests and delegates in the balcony had a better view and could hear a lot better than the delegates on the floor because it’s really noisy and you can’t see a thing,” said Sebastian, a Furman University sophomore majoring in Classics. “Everyone is waving signs. The scene on the floor really isn’t the best venue for actually seeing the speeches.”

Sebastian, who worked in Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe’s successful 1st Congressional District GOP primary campaign, had been an alternate delegate pledged to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the state’s GOP presidential primary.

Sebastian said he was asked by state GOP Chair Robin Smith to step up and be a delegate last May, and his answer was a no-brainer. Huckabee released him to support GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

The best part of the convention, said Sebastian, was Wednesday night’s speech by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick who has GOP diehards buzzing.

“She was just electrifying,” Sebastian said of Palin. “It looked great on TV, but it was even grander in person. ... She is a citizen servant not climbing the career stepladder her whole life, ... she’s the first normal person I’ve seen on the national stage in my lifetime.”

Before going to St. Paul, Sebastian questioned whether the convention would be a success.

“This is a hard election year for Republicans,” he admitted. “I didn’t think they would be able to pull off a coherent theme that would rally the base and whoop it up, while pulling in moderates and undecided voters. I think they managed to do that with great zeal. ‘Country First’ turned out to be a brilliant theme.”

Sebastian also addressed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s huge advantage with younger voters. A Harvard University Institute of Politics poll says Obama has maintained a 23-point lead over McCain this summer among likely voters ages 18 to 24.

“I think the gap will close,” Sebastian predicted. “Obama has a very exciting, persuasive appeal, ... both candidates have figured out that young people particularly, and the electorate in general, want change. They want something new and different. Barack Obama is looking backward at the past eight years. John McCain is ready to unite our country and move our country forward. ... I think young people will ultimately be impressed by someone who wants to serve a calling greater than his self interest.”

Sebastian graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School and was in the school’s Junior Statesmen of America chapter. After graduating from Furman, he said he has no interest to run for public office.

But he does want to go to a future Republican National Convention.

“I want to get myself in a position to do this again four years from now,” Sebastian said. “This is a lot of fun. But it’s not lost on me what an honor it is for a 19-year-old to get to go, especially from our congressional district.”

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