FORT COLLINS - 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.
"I just want all of you to understand your power. Don't give it away - not when you're young," Obama told about 13,000 people gathered on the campus of Colorado State University. "Right now, America is counting on you. And I'm counting on you."
In Colorado and Iowa, 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 at Iowa State University, 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 in Ames, Iowa. "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 many of your lives, you'll get to pick a president," Obama 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. Following stops at Iowa State and Colorado State, he was making a similar appeal on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va., home to the University of Virginia.
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.
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 volunteers tout the president's positions on social issues, like gay rights, that garner significant support among young people. Obama has stressed his work to freeze interest rates on new federal student loans.
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 - and even those who are already registered may need to change their address after moving to new dorms.