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More than 100 students -- many of them too young to vote in the last presidential election -- gathered at the University of Minnesota on Thursday to watch President Obama accept his party's nomination for a second term.
Students filled the Rapson Hall auditorium or stood or crouched in the aisles to watch the speech, laughing at the punch lines and applauding wildly for the president's calls for amnesty for young immigrants, for programs to recruit more math and science teachers and his call to end the war in Afghanistan and turn the nation's resources to getting more Americans back to work.
For many of the students in the audience, the past four years of hardship have hit home. Paige Varin, 18, has friends from high school who couldn't afford to start college this year because their parents can't afford the expense.
"I think every kid should have the same chance to get an education," said Varin, who is double-majoring in biology and Spanish. "The way to stimulate the economy is not approaching the millionaires, the way to do it is approaching the people who are struggling and helping them out."
The Rapson Hall event was organized by Students for Obama as part of the campaign's effort to re-create the enthusiasm among young voters that helped sweep Obama into the White House four years ago.
"I'm really, really excited," said Keisa Helgerson, 18, ready to vote in her first presidential election and already signed up to canvass for Students for Obama this weekend.
In 2008, 68 percent of Minnesota's under-30 voters went to the polls, one of the highest youth turnout rates in the nation and part of a surge of 22 million young voters. It was the third-highest youth turnout in U.S. history, and exit polls showed that young voters across the country favored Obama over GOP nominee John McCain by a margin of 2-1.
After four years of recession, unemployment and skyrocketing student loan debt, however, the GOP is hopeful the excitement has dulled.
At the Republican convention in Tampa last week, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said: "College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life."
Even some of the Obama supporters in Rapson Hall admitted it will be hard to match the energy Obama engendered as he emerged on the national scene.
"I will say, no he will not be able to tap into the exact same energy that was 2008. That's a whole different story. I don't think that would be fair to compare at all," said senior Chee Xiong, 22, a communications major who voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to volunteer with the campus Students for Obama chapter this election.
What does get students excited, he said, are policies that expand Pell grants and allow them to stay on their parents' health insurance policies for years after they graduate.
"Yes, there is energy to be tapped into, and that's what we're doing here on campus," he said.
As students cheered and applauded inside the auditorium, Obama for America volunteers in the halls circulated volunteer sign-up sheets, voter registration forms and cards inviting students to "Pledge to Vote in the Fall."
Groups such as Students for Obama and the neighborhood's "Barack Squad" have been gearing up since last year.
At Thursday's event one student organizer urged her classmates to make time to help Obama win re-election, suggesting they "maybe watch one less episode of Gossip Girl."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049