Once thought to be solidly behind President Barack Obama, younger voters burdened by a bleak employment picture, high gas prices and student loan debt are being aggressively wooed by the Democrat and his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
In 2008, Obama had a 34-point advantage over Republican Sen. John McCain among voters younger than 30. He won about two-thirds of the vote in that age group.
But a new Harvard poll suggests the president could face a more difficult sales job with younger voters this time around. Obama led Romney by 12 points among those ages 18-24, according to the survey. Among those in the 25-29 age group, Obama held a 23-point advantage.
It's an opening Republicans hope to exploit by focusing on young people's disillusionment with the candidate who promised "hope" and "change."
"I think young voters in this country have to vote for me if they're really thinking about what's in the best interest of their country and what's in their personal best interest," Romney said Monday in Pennsylvania after announcing his support for an effort Obama pushed last week to keep the interest rate on federal student loans from doubling in July.
"The president's policies have led to extraordinary statistics. When you look at 50 percent of kids coming out of college today can't find a job or can't find a job which is consistent with their skills, how in the world can you be supporting a president that has led to that kind of economy?" Romney said. "I think young people will understand that ours is the party of opportunity and jobs."
While Republicans don't anticipate erasing the Democrats' long-held advantage among the younger-than-30 voter group, they would like to trim it enough to help Romney win the White House.
His aides and advisers have been sharpening a message that assails Obama for an economy that has young people feeling the pinch, too.
The Republican National Committee is preparing to launch what it calls the Social Victory Center, which promises to turn the Facebook accounts of supporters into an outreach arm of the party. And Romney's five telegenic sons, none of them younger than 30, are ready to reprise their roles as campaign surrogates.
Obama has spent a lot of time recently casting himself as a defender of the middle class and urging Congress to keep the 3.4 percent student loan interest rate from doubling to 6.8 percent in July.
Obama rallied students during visits Tuesday to college campuses in North Carolina and Colorado, which were followed by a stop Wednesday in Iowa. Obama carried all three states in 2008, and they are considered among several that could help decide November's election.
"When a big chunk of every paycheck goes towards loan debt, that's not just tough on you; that's not just tough for middle-class families; it's not just tough on your parents; it's painful for the economy because that money is not going to help businesses grow," Obama said at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "I mean, think about the sooner you can start buying a house, that's good for the housing industry. The sooner you can start up that business, that means you're hiring some folks. That grows the economy."
Despite attempts to relate to college audiences by opening up about his and his wife's experiences with student loans, polling suggests Obama's job approval rating among these voters has declined. The 75 percent rating he enjoyed in 2009 has dropped to 57 percent, according to Gallup.
That opens the door for Romney and the Republican Party.
Consider North Carolina. Obama won it by fewer than 14,000 votes, making him the first Democrat to carry the state since 1976.
Rick Wiley, the RNC's political director, said Democrats pulled off that victory by registering "a boatload of college kids."
But fast forward four years, and "those college kids are not going to be there. They're not on campuses anymore. They're probably underemployed," he said.
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