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Education is Foundation of Middle Class, Obama Says at University of Iowa

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IOWA CITY, Iowa President Barack Obama forcefully engaged his critics here Wednesday, arguing that an affordable college education is the ticket to the middle class for Americans, and he challenged the notion that his call for lower interest rates on student loans is an attempt to distract from the economy.

"What economy are they talking about," he asked incredulously? "You are the economy," Obama told an estimated 5,500 people at the Field House on the University of Iowa campus.

The president's stop here, the third college campus he's visited in three days, is part of an effort to get Congress to extend low interest rates on a popular loan program for low- and middle-income students. If nothing is done, those rates will double on loans taken out after July 1. Obama urged students to contact Congress by whatever means, including Twitter.

Watch President Obama's Speech at the Univ. of Iowa

The visit was billed as an official trip, and the president didn't aim his criticism at presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney but at congressional Republicans, some of whom have lampooned his proposal. At one point, the president appeared amazed at an unnamed Republican who he said called his proposal a "stage three cancer of socialism." "I'm not kidding here," he said.

Obama nonetheless appeared in campaign-form in a state generally considered important to his re-election and in front of an age group he dominated four years ago.

A new Harvard University poll this week said he leads Romney among millennials, those ages 18 to 29. But the 17-point lead is about half his margin of victory over John McCain among this age group from four years ago. The age group made up one in six Iowa voters four years ago.

Obama's visit here Wednesday will seek to pump up voters he needs, one analyst said. "This is a group that he wants to energize," said Timothy Hagle, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa.

Republicans tried to make the case Wednesday that young voters were turning away from the president. They said that in 2011, more people between 18 and 24 registered with the GOP in Iowa than with the Democrats, a switch from 2008. Some of that margin was likely because of a healthy competition among a slate of Republicans leading up to the 2012 caucuses. But in 2010, a greater share of registered Iowa Republicans in that age group turned out to vote than Democrats in midterm elections, according to state records.

Republicans, focusing on the economy, have repeatedly pointed out that the unemployment among people between 16 and 24 is at 16.4 percent, twice the overall jobless rate. "Students can't get anywhere if they are living in their parent's basement," Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman said on a conference call with reporters before the president's visit. "The interest rate is important, but the bigger issue is the president has been an absolute failure in terms of meeting the standards of Americans."

The unemployment rate for youth is lower than the 19 percent it was at in 2010, but it's still higher than the 14 percent it hovered at in the year before Obama took office.

In his remarks, the president pointed to a shorter trend line, arguing that, while more needs to be done, 4 million jobs have been created in the past two years.

He also sought to make a personal connection with the audience, saying that it wasn't that long ago that he and his wife were paying off their college loans and that keeping education accessible is an enduring American value. That personal connection was felt by at least one person in the audience, although it was a different kind of link, a testament to the deep ties the president has with a state he visited as far back as five years ago as a presidential hopeful.

"I'm a huge Obama fan," said Andrew English, a 30-year-old from Iowa City who added that Obama campaign staffers helped him with his flooded home in 2008, a culture he attributed to the president. "They came through for me at one of the worst times of my life" he said. English, a machine operator whose employer is preparing to shut down, said his job prospects are slim, but he didn't hold it against the president. "Not everything is under his control" he said.

Even though he has no student loans to pay off, he added, the focus on the interest rate issue connects with him. "I've got several friends who are up to their neck in debt," he said.

Another student, Courtney Watters, a University of Iowa senior from LeClaire who backs Obama but pronounced her own postgraduate job prospects as "iffy," said: "There's a lot more to it than one person. There's a lot of variables to creating jobs."

The president's remarks here were punctuated with cheers and shout outs. "We love you, Barack," one student said during a lull.

"I love you back," the president said, adding that, what's more, "I believe in you."

Much of the attention in advance of his visit has been on how college costs affect young people. But focusing on the matter has a wider appeal, said Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant in the state.

"Anything that has to do with controlling costs in education is an issue that is appealing to everybody," he said.

Steve Grubbs, a Republican consultant in the state, said the political impact of keeping interest rates low will be negligible because it simply maintains the status quo and doesn't confer a benefit beyond people aren't already getting. "The problem is they won't feel anything," he said.

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