CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - President Obama kicked off a two-day, three-stop tour of college campuses Tuesday with soaring speeches on student loan interest rates that quickly veered into an all-out appeal for students' support.
His likely Republican opponent in November, Mitt Romney, didn't wait for the president's visit here to make his own appeal to young people and to charge that Obama had failed them.
The give-and-take was typical of a fledgling general election campaign in which neither side allows an issue or a charge to go without an instant response. And it highlighted what will certainly be a crucial battleground in the fall for the hearts and minds of young people.
Obama told about 8,000 people at the University of North Carolina that Republicans are paying "lip service" to an issue that "requires not just words, but deeds": student loans that leave the average college graduate $25,000 in debt.
"Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes," he said. "We didn't come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt."
In a conference call hours earlier, Romney's surrogates told reporters why they believe the president has failed the young voters who helped elect him.
"President Obama gets an 'F' for failing our youth," said former Colorado senator Hank Brown. "The president was able to fool a number of our college students into supporting his campaign, and the result has been the highest level of unemployment for youth in our country's recorded history."
The Romney campaign sent out a news release filled with data on how younger adults are faring with Obama in the White House. It included such details as higher college tuition at four-year schools and a 16.4% unemployment rate for youths.
Obama won 66% of the vote among 18- to 29-year-olds in 2008, according to exit polls. He also helped to increase turnout among adults in the same age group who are black, Latino and Asian American, according to data compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.
Many students here remain supportive but are concerned that Obama's "hope and change" message has been dimmed by partisanship and infighting.
"When they got to Washington, things got a little messy," said Alex Borgen, a 22-year-old senior who worked for Obama's 2008 election while still in high school. "There are definitely people who are way less enamored with him."
Obama's speeches this week are billed as official White House events with a legislative goal: getting Congress to vote by July 1 to block federal student loan interest rates from doubling.
Letting the interest rates on Stafford loans double would be like "a tax hike for more than 7 million students across America," Obama said. "This shouldn't be a partisan issue."
Romney has endorsed a temporary reprieve for students facing higher interest rates, but Republicans in Congress haven't promised their support. They say they are amenable to a deal on loan interest rates, but the bigger problem is an economy that is producing few jobs for graduates.
By Richard Wolf, Catalina Camia and David Jackson, USA TODAY