Florida became the battleground for the youth vote Monday, as Michelle Obama and the son of former Gov. Jeb Bush arrived within hours of each other on college campuses in Tallahassee and Gainesville hoping to drum up support for their candidates among pivotal young voters.
The first lady spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 10,750 cheering supporters at the Stephen O’Connell Center at the University of Florida and then darted to Tallahassee to another packed house of 8,850 at the Leon County Civic Center.
“All our hard work, all the progress we’ve made is all on the line; it’s all at stake this November,” Obama told a rowdy crowd of supporters in Gainesville. “This election is even closer than the last one, and it could all come down to what happens in just a few battleground states like Florida.’’
She delivered a similar 30-minute speech in Tallahassee, and coached her audiences not to take a day off for the next 60 days and “work like you’ve never worked before.”
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Part pep talk, part get-out-the-vote drive, Obama’s remarks also underscored the importance of registering to vote by the Oct. 9 deadline in Florida.
Four years ago, she said, her husband won by 236,000 votes in Florida. “That’s just 36 votes per precinct,’’ she said. “That could mean just one vote in your neighborhood, in your dorm, in your apartment.”
The greeting was more subdued for George P. Bush, son of Florida’s former governor and nephew of the former president, as he launched his six-college bus tour on behalf of the Maverick PAC, a political action committee designed to increase activism among young Republican professionals.
About two dozen members of Florida State University’s Young Republicans Club greeted Bush for the first-of-its-kind event intended to counter the Democrats’ successful youth campaign four years ago.
In 2008, voters ages 18 to 29 turned out in record numbers and voted for Barack Obama 61 to 37 percent over John McCain. Bush estimates they also outspent Republicans 20 to 1 on the “digital campaign,” and the Maverick PAC hopes to match the effort. The group has raised about $200,000 from low-dollar fundraisers and its super PAC has collected another $1.4 million, Bush said, to finance an aggressive social-media campaign, Bush’s bus tour and a pro-Romney outreach effort.
“We feel if you make a physical presence, make an effort, they’ll come out,’’ Bush said to the small rally outside Doak Campbell Stadium.
Polls show Obama with an edge over Romney among voters ages 18-29, but the president has lost the support of large numbers of white young people.
The top priority for the millennial generation: job creation, according to a Harvard University poll. Affordable access to healthcare and lowering the tax burden tie as the next priority, the poll conducted in the spring found.
Today, the national unemployment rate among voters ages 18 to 29, at 17 percent, is more than twice the state average, and concerns over the fate of the economy and their future job outlook haunt many students.
Lemane Delval, a graduate student at the University of Florida, stood in line two hours to get tickets for Michelle Obama’s event. But the food science major who voted for Obama in 2008 said more students went out of curiosity than fervor for the president.
“I think students are still enthusiastic about [Obama], but not as much as in 2008,” he said.
Obama’s policies have helped make student loans affordable, Delval said, but many young people are worried about graduating without jobs.
With jobs scarce, polls also show disillusionment in politics is much worse among college students than among other voting groups, and polls also show that young Americans are more anxious and dispirited than they were four years ago.
Republicans want to capitalize on that angst.
“More younger Americans are open to a different message than what the president has provided. They see a disconnect between the rhetoric and the results,’’ Bush said. “You combine that with the concern about the fiscal cliff — that we will be the first generation that is handed a big fat bill, as opposed to a hand-up — it’s starting to have some resonance.”
The Romney campaign has established organizations at 30 colleges across Florida and has enlisted student volunteers to make 50,000 calls to voters, said Justin York, chairman of Young Americans for Romney in Florida.
The Obama campaign has not retreated from the successful grassroots efforts that have gotten young people to the polls in record numbers. This year, it has expanded its youth volunteer program and trained 1,100 “Fall Fellows” to work on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts for the last 50 days of the campaign.
Young people “have always driven Barack’s campaign with your energy and your passion,’’ Michelle Obama told the crowd in Tallahassee.
The crowd roared when she touted the president’s healthcare reform plan that allows young people “to stay on your parents’ insurance” until age 26 and requires insurance companies “to pay for basic preventive care, like contraception and cancer screening.”
She then urged them to vote early in the event some of them might oversleep on Election Day.
“We want as many of you to vote early as possible so that you can spend Election Day to get other people to the polls to vote,’’ she said.
Bush’s bus was scheduled to arrive in Gainesville 30 minutes after the first lady’s speech. A handful of students held pro-Romney signs on a street corner outside the forum that read: “Romney: the real job creator” and “We did build that.”
“She’s stiff competition,’’ Bush said of Michelle Obama. “We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas