AMES, Iowa — President Barack Obama, appealing to students who powered his first White House run, swooped onto college campuses Tuesday to remind those returning to class that they hold a unique power to determine the election.
“Your vote matters. Your vote made a difference,” Obama told about 6,000 students at Iowa State University, many wearing cardinal and gold T-shirts. “Change was possible because of you and now we’ve got more work to do.”
Obama told the students that they had much at stake in the Nov. 6 presidential election, panning Republican rival Mitt Romney as a candidate without a plan to move the country forward. “Last week my opponents’ campaign went so far as to write you off as a lost generation. That’s you according to them,” the president said, referring to a Romney news release last week that referred to college students as the “Obama Economy’s Lost Generation.”
“What they hope is that by telling you these things, you’ll get discouraged and you’ll just stay home this time,” Obama said. “But you can’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”
Romney’s campaign dismissed Obama’s remarks, saying he had “brought the same policies to Iowa that have failed to help young Americans across the country” and left many of them “facing higher unemployment, mounting debt, rising costs, and fewer opportunities.”
With Republicans gathering in Tampa, Fla., for their party convention, Obama sought to tap the same enthusiasm that propelled millions of young people to campaign and vote for him in 2008. He noted that many of the students on campus were in high school four years ago. “For the first time in most of your lives, you will get a chance to pick a president,” he said.
The president, who once led a voter registration drive in Chicago, tried to motivate the young people to register to vote, telling them that “everybody else is waiting for you, if they see you register, they’ll register.”
Obama aides see college campuses as fertile ground for registering and recruiting some of the more than 15 million young people who have become eligible to vote since the 2008 election. After the stop at Iowa State, he was making the same appeal to college voters in two other university towns: Fort Collins, Colo., on Tuesday, and Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday.
Romney’s campaign sees an opportunity to cut into the president’s support among young people by pushing a three-pronged economic argument focusing on the nation’s high unemployment rate, soaring college costs and the national debt.
“These kids haven’t even entered the workforce and they already owe the government a bill for the debt Obama has rung up,” said Joshua Baca, the Romney campaign’s national coalitions director.
Like the Republicans in Tampa, however, the president has been forced to balance campaign politics with attention to Hurricane Isaac as it powers its way toward the Gulf Coast. Obama made a bipartisan pitch, saying that the nation would help people in the storm’s path recover “because when disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first. We’re one family.”
Aides said that while there were no current plans to change Obama’s itinerary, the White House was monitoring the storm and would adjust his schedule if necessary. Before departing the White House, Obama warned residents in the storm’s path to heed the advice from local officials.
The courtship of young voters is an essential part of Obama’s campaign plan. Four years ago, Obama won two-thirds of the vote among 18- to 29-year-olds, compared with just 32 percent for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, according to exit polls.
Polls show him leading Romney with college-age voters in this year’s race but the president faces an undeniable challenge as he seeks to convince young people that he is the right steward for the economy as they eye a shaky post-graduation job market.
Seeking to overcome that economic uncertainty, Obama’s campus staffers and volunteers are touting the president’s positions on social issues, like gay rights, that garner significant support among young people. Obama has stressed his effort to freeze interest rates on new federal student loans, a pitch he personalizes by reminding voters that he and the first lady were once buried under a “mountain” of student loan debt after law school.
They have also turned to Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate, saying Ryan’s budget would cut funding for Pell Grants, the federal need-based program for students.
Obama campaign officials say the start of the new school year is a particularly crucial time to ramp up college registration and make sure those new voters get to the polls. In many of the battleground states, about 50 percent of the college students register to vote on campus after Labor Day, according to the campaign. And even those who are already registered may need to change their address or other personal details after moving to new dorms.
Obama’s campaign said it registered 10,000 voters on college campuses in Ohio last week and signed up 300 new volunteers at colleges in Iowa.
At the University of Dayton, Daniel Rajaiah encourages his fellow Democrats to carry voter registration forms to class, to parties and around campus in case they find someone who hasn’t registered. Members of the College Democrats set up tables in the middle of campus a few days a week to catch students walking to class or to the cafeteria.
“Our game plan this fall is to hit voter registration very hard,” said Rajaiah, who is president of the College Democrats of Ohio.