President Obama kicks off his "official" re-election campaign Saturday with college rallies in Virginia and Ohio the latest in a series of events aimed at shoring up the president's flagging support among the coalition of women, minorities and young voters that propelled him to victory in 2008.
With unemployment of people under age 30 well above the national jobless rate, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will try to rekindle excitement with visits to the campuses of Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Two-thirds of the 18-to-29 age group voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, but there are signs of an enthusiasm gap this time.
"A number of surveys over the past year indicate their support in that demographic is really lagging," said Paul Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit devoted to educating and mobilizing the under-30 crowd on the nation's economic challenges. "The No. 1 issue is jobs, or the lack of jobs."
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reports 45 percent of young people have "a great deal of interest" in this election, down from 63 percent four years ago.
In 2008, Mr. Obama thrilled crowds on the campaign trail with lines like "Now is our time "and "We can change the world."
But with the national unemployment rate still higher than 8 percent, the president is confronted in this campaign with defending his own policies.
Mrs. Obama gave a preview of the Democrats' re-election theme earlier this week at a campaign fundraiser in Nevada.
"Whether it's health care or our economy, whether it's education or foreign policy, the choice we make this November will determine nothing less than who we are as a country," she said. "We cannot turn back now. We need to keep moving forward."
The campaign's choice of Ohio and Virginia for its official rollout is also an indication of those states' must-win status. Mr. Obama captured both states in 2008 after Republican George W. Bush won them in the previous two elections. Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said it will be different for the president this year.
"Republicans won big in Virginia in 2009, 2010 and 2011," Mr. Mullins said. "We've seen important victories every year since President Obama has been in office, because Virginians are rejecting his agenda. He's been exposed for what he truly is: a cold, calculating, Chicago political operator."
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, campaigned in Virginia ahead of Mr. Obama Thursday. He criticized the president's energy policies for harming the state's coal industry and thwarting jobs by preventing offshore oil drilling.
But Obama campaign officials signaled Thursday that they intend to focus the discussion in Virginia on women's issues. In a memo, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Mr. Romney and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell "share an extreme agenda on women's health and economic security.
"Mitt Romney supports handing over women's health care decisions to their bosses, promises to defund Planned Parenthood and refuses to say whether he would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that helps women fight back when they're paid unfairly," the memo states. "Women can't afford to turn back the clock by electing Mitt Romney."
To illustrate their point, the Obama campaign's web site is introducing an online tool called "the life of Julia," which shows voters how each candidate's policies would affect a typical middle-class woman from cradle to grave. Suffice to say, "Julia" emerges much more healthy and better-educated under President Obama's policies.
In Ohio, a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday shows that Mr. Romney has pulled into a virtual tie with Mr. Obama after trailing by six points in late March. The survey now has Mr. Obama at 44 percent and Mr. Romney at 42 percent, well within the poll's 2.9 percent margin of error.
Pollster Peter Brown attributed Mr. Romney's improved showing in Ohio to his win in the Republican nominating race and to continued concern about the economy.
"Voter optimism about the economy has leveled off," Mr. Brown said.
The same poll showed Mr. Romney in a virtual tie with the president in another critical battleground state, Florida (the Republican leads, 44 to 43 percent), after trailing Mr. Obama there by 7 points in late March. In Pennsylvania, another state Mr. Obama won four years ago, the president has expanded his lead over Mr. Romney from 3 percentage points to 8, 47 to 39 percent.
Republican officials were critical of the notion that Mr. Obama is "starting" his campaign this weekend, arguing that he has been making campaign-style appearances in battleground states under the cover of official business for about a year.
"I think we all know he's been campaigning on the taxpayers' dime for over a year now," Mr. Priebus said.
White House officials say they have followed the rules scrupulously for the campaign reimbursing the government for political travel. But Generation Opportunity conducted a study that found administration officials have held more than 240 youth-oriented events at taxpayer expense in the past year on college campuses and other locations around the country, often in battleground states.
The events have targeted 18-to-29-year-olds, not just college students, the group said.
"What they've tried to do, in our opinion, is tailor their operations across government to make certain their surrogates are dispatched in a targeted and coordinated manner to shore up this particular constituency of 18 to 29, especially college-educated," said Mr. Conway, who has served in four administrations, most recently under Republican George W. Bush.
Other administrations have used official government travel and expenses to promote policies with a political agenda in mind. But Mr. Conway said the Obama administration is taking it to another level.
"What's different on this one is the size and scope in going after a specific demographic of voters," he said. "The American taxpayer has already footed the bill for a yearlong campaign targeted to the 18-to-29-year-olds on at least 130 college campuses."
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