May 4, 2007 — -- It's graduation season and presidential contenders are the stars of the 2007 commencement speaker circuit.
No fewer than three White House wannabes -- Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; and former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York -- speak to long-suffering college students on Saturday.
Where the presidential candidates choose to don a cap and gown has less to do with higher education and everything to do with seeking higher office.
"Commencement speeches are great venues for the presidential candidates," said Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University. "They often speak to a large number of people and it's not perceived as partisan."
While their speeches may be nonpartisan, their choice of venue is often a matter of electoral strategy.
On Saturday, Clinton hits Ohio, the swing state that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., lost in 2004.
She delivers the commencement speech to Wilberforce University in Fairborn -- a small school with a strong history as the nation's oldest private black university.
"Her presence there is of great symbolic value to her campaign," Beck said.
He argues Clinton's attempt to reach out to blacks is a political strategy to manage the popularity of Democratic '08 rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
"She is obviously locked in a contest with a very attractive African-American candidate who is pulling increasing support from that particular constituency, an important constituency in the Democratic nomination process," Beck said.
"By going there she is showing her affinity and her support for African-Americans and also doing it in a way that kind of reaches back to this very historic tradition that Wilberforce has," he said.
Clinton will also deliver a second commencement speech to another historically African-American, private institution -- Claflin University on May 12. Claflin is in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a key southern primary state.
During this graduation season, Clinton may have an advantage over her rivals. She can dispatch a proxy speaker: her husband.
Former President Clinton is one of the most coveted commencement speakers at U.S. colleges, turning down dozens of invitations each year to talk about his foundation.
This year, with his wife on the campaign stump, Clinton has increased his graduation addresses and is speaking to six schools, including the University of New Hampshire, located, not coincidentally, in the state that will hold the nation's first primary.
Keeping things bipartisan, Clinton will be joined on stage in the Granite State by former President George H.W. Bush, who, at this point, has no endorsed candidate -- or kin -- in the 2008 race.
Last month, Clinton spoke at the University of Michigan commencement about what it meant to be a good citizen.
"It's not enough to vote and pay your taxes," Clinton told the Michigan graduates in Ann Arbor. "Private citizens have more power to do public good than ever before."
In addition to the addresses in New Hampshire and Michigan, former President Clinton also plans to speak at Vermont's Middlebury College; Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.; the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York; and Harvard University's Class Day, one day before commencement.
Romney is targeting his graduation message to a key religious voting group: Christian evangelicals.
The former Massachusetts governor will deliver the commencement address Saturday to Regent University, an evangelical Christian university founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, host of the "700 Club" and the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
"Romney's trying to broaden the base of his support to the evangelical Christian community because a substantial number of delegates to the Republican national convention come from there and come from the South," said Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.
"He has a principle problem, namely that he's a Mormon," Dunn said. "That Mormon issue is a lightning rod and he has to do something to turn that around if he's going to penetrate the South, if he's going to penetrate evangelical Christians."
Dunn said Romney's speech to Regent could be his John F. Kennedy "Houston" moment.
In 1960, Kennedy spoke to a Southern Baptist pastors' meeting in Houston, winning them over when he declared that, as a Roman Catholic, he would not take orders from the pope if he were elected president.
"This could be that for him at Regent University because he cannot win the nomination without getting evangelical Christian and southern Support," Dunn said.
Romney's not alone in targeting his message to a specific political audience.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivered a commencement speech last month to the Virginia Military Institute.
In his decidedly partisan address, McCain supported the president's troop surge plan in Iraq.
"We, who are willing to support this new strategy, and give Gen. [David] Petraeus the time and support he needs, have chosen a hard road, but it is the right road," McCain said.
The commonwealth of Virginia may also hold special political significance for GOP candidates. Once a reliable Republican stronghold, the state elected a Democratic senator in 2006 and has elected two Democratic governors in a row.
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, bowed out of the 2008 race last year citing family concerns. Warner, a centrist thought to appeal to Southern Democrats, is often mentioned as a possible Senate or vice presidential contender.
Giuliani will not cede military support to McCain, delivering the commencement address Saturday at the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, S.C.
"We were looking at Mayor Giuliani's leadership that he demonstrated post-9/11," said Brig. Gen. Harrison Carter, dean of the college. Carter said the students and faculty had agreed on Giuliani early on and invited him to speak.
"Our mission here at the Citadel is the development of principled leaders and when we look for a commencement speaker, we look for someone who can tie that theme into the cadets," said Carter.
The invitation may have been that much sweeter given South Carolina's political prominence as the first primary state in the South. The state's voters represent the more conservative wing of the Republican Party and can serve as a test for Republican candidates.
In 2000, McCain, having won the New Hampshire primary by a large margin, lost much of his political momentum when he lost the South Carolina GOP primary to then-Gov. George W. Bush.
Other 2008 presidential candidates are giving commencement addresses in the key primary state of New Hampshire.
Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., speaks at New England College's commencement in Henniker, N.H., May 12. Edwards will receive an honorary degree from the small liberal arts college.
"John Edwards was the first in his family to receive a college education and understands the importance of higher education and the opportunities that it creates for students of all ages," said Michele D. Perkins, interim president in a statement.
One week later, Obama returns to what is by now familiar '08 campaign ground to deliver the graduation speech at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester.
President Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's recent commencement speeches have drawn protesters.
Last month, Bush talked about his immigration policy to students at Miami-Dade College, where more than half of the students were raised speaking a language other than English.
Activist groups greeted Bush by holding an "unwelcoming party" in Miami.
Bush will make three commencement speeches this year, including one at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and one at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
In a rare showing of dissent, about 100 Mormon students at Brigham Young University quietly protested last month when Cheney delivered the commencement address.
The anti-war protesters held signs that read "Mormon for peace" and "Make soup, not war."