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Top Obama campaign brass embark on college tour


CHICAGO -- While Republican presidential rivals continue to brawl over the nomination, President Obama's re-election campaign is aggressively courting one of the constituencies most enthusiastic about the Democratic flagbearer in 2008: swing-state college students and other voters under 30.

The outreach events at 12 colleges and universities in 10 states over the next two months won't just entail some Facebook fan pages and the occasional celebrity drop-by. The Greater Together Summit Tour will include in-person policy discussions led by top re-elect brass like campaign manager Jim Messina, adviser David Axelrod, and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. Local officials, student leaders, and actors and actresses will also be participating, with appearances from onetime White House staffer Kal Penn and actress Gabrielle Union.

The "summit" tour kicked off at Columbus State Community College in Ohio earlier this month and featured an appearance by field director Jeremy Bird. An aide said that over 700 people attended a second summit event last night at North Carolina Central University, where Messina led students in chants of "Fired Up! Ready to Go!"

Other events are scheduled in February for schools in Nevada, Virginia, Florida and New Hampshire; March will see similar events held at major universities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and  Michigan. A similarly-themed series of roundtable discussions at historically black colleges and universities will hit 28 schools in the coming months as well.

The events -- which are structured to include policy discussions of issues important to young voters as well as question-and-answer sessions -- are aimed at recruiting volunteers, energizing new voters, and reminding young supporters who were in their early 20s four years ago why they got on the Obama train in the first place.

A review of 2008 exit polls shows why the re-engagement effort may be crucial for Obama's performance in swing states in 2012. In North Carolina, where Obama barely eked out a victory over John McCain, young voters broke for the Democrat by 48 points, offering more than 10 points more support than the national youth average. In Virginia and Wisconsin, young people made up 21 and 22 percent of the voting population respectively, compared to the 18 percent youth participation rate nationwide.

According to Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at Pew Research Center, Obama would have still easily won the necessary 270 electoral votes last cycle even without his strong performances with young voters.

But in 2012, with a much closer electoral count likely, turnout among 18-29 year olds could make the difference between loss and victory in a swing state.

"When the difference before winning and losing the election may come down to North Carolina, or Virginia, or Colorado, you're in an 'every vote counts' scenario," Keeter said.

Obama still has a substantial advantage with younger voters. A January NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that, in a head to head matchup, Obama would beat Mitt Romney 51 percent to 40 percent with voters under 35. A November poll by Pew found Obama's support with those under 30 at 61 percent against Romney, and even higher with young voters who are black or Hispanic.

But the re-election team's biggest challenge will be keeping its past supportive young voters engaged, voting, and volunteering, especially as the sluggish job market hits their demographic hard.

"Older voters haven't been as directly affected by the job situation as young people have," said Keeter, noting that young minority voters are particularly victim to high unemployment rates. "There's a lot of drag on the president's ability here to reconstruction his coalition."

Those are the kind of concerns that the leaders of Team Obama -- like Messina -- hope to allay by reminding voters of the president's accomplishments with in-person engagement in young peoples' own states.

"When people say to you 'where's the hope?' or 'where's the change?'" Messina told voters Tuesday night in North Carolina, "I need you to remind them that change is being delivered every single day."