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Starting at UF, Michelle Obama vies for Florida's youth vote

First Lady Michelle Obama hit familiar notes as she spoke to an electric, 10,750-person crowd at the Stephen O’Connell Center in Gainesville Monday.

But for many students who waited hours for tickets to Obama’s speech and filled the bleachers two hours early, you’d think it was 2008 all over again and they were hearing the message for the first time.

“We’re all a part of something,” she said, the audience roaring. “With our freedoms come obligations, and with our blessings comes our duty to give back to those who have less.”

In an effort to drive out the youth vote that helped get her husband elected in 2008, Obama stopped in Gainesville (before heading to Tallahassee) to implore students to organize, to make phone calls, to knock on doors and to vote for her husband.

“All our hard work, all the progress we’ve made is all on the line, it’s all at stake this November,” she said. “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 appeared relaxed and said she was going off script at times, stopping to answer audience members who called out to her.

“Listen to me...not as The First Lady...listen to me as though I was your mother,” she said, her voice hitting a stern lilt. “We need every single one of you to work like you’ve never worked before. Young people have always driven Barack’s campaign with your energy and passion.

“We need you to talk to everyone you know. Let them know what this election means for your future. Remind them of all the things this president has accomplished. Make sure, most importantly, that you and they are registered to vote.”

The crowd stood throughout the speech, often cheering so loud they drowned Obama out.

This is hardly the Obama campaign’s first effort to reach out to the university.

Weeks ago, an image of President Barack Obama at Gator’s Dockside in Orlando, arms splayed in a Gator Chomp, went viral on Facebook and other social media sites.

Michelle Obama also spoke in Gainesville during the 2008 campaign. And the UF Fightin’ Gator Marching Band performed for The First Lady during a July visit to London.

Freshman Natalie Boruk, after the speech, said she's more sure she'll vote for the president than ever.

"I don't know that much about the policy issues, but I think (the speech) was really inspirational," she said. "(Obama) is a real person, and you can tell she's genuine."

But outside the stadium on Monday, opinions were mixed.

Popular Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe, a Democrat, frequently stumps for the president.

Political posters for both parties line the campus buildings and the UF College Democrats register voters of both parties daily on the campus’s two main plazas. The Republican student groups aren’t active in registering voters, said Austin Swink, communications director for Gators for Romney.

Student leaders did not know how many peers they’d registered.  But, as of Monday afternoon, about 77,325 Democrats, 45,208 Republicans and 35, 148 other voters had registered in Alachua County, according to the Supervisor of Elections website.

Some students say Romney is gaining momentum, evidenced by the 60 to 100 people who show up at biweekly Gators for Romney meetings and by the group's 1,493 likes on Facebook (compared to the 1,070 likes of Gators for Obama).

Two Romney campaign busses have stopped in Gainesville, but Romney and Ryan have no scheduled events there.

Vice presidential pick Paul Ryan may have also helped swing some students in Romney’s favor, said Swink.

“People who may not have been as involved in this campaign…the Paul Ryan speech (at the Republican National Convention) may have revitalized them” Swink said. “He could be any one of us in 10 years. I think a lot of students really identify with him.”

Before the First Lady’s speech, a handful of students held pro-Romney signs at the street corner outside the forum with slogans like “Romney: the real job creator” and “We did build that.”

“UF is notorious for being a liberal campus, but there are Republicans out there,” said Christina Strasser, a political science and criminology junior. “That’s why we’re here trying to get people excited.”

Some supporters honked as they drove by, but some seemed irritated.

“Nobody likes Romney!” yelled one student, as she walked by.

Lemane Delval, a food science graduate student who voted for Obama in 2008, said he’s undecided about who he will vote for in November. He stood in line two hours to get Michelle Obama tickets, more out of curiosity than because of a fervor for the president.

The top concern for students, Delval believes, is education. Obama’s policies have helped make student loans affordable, he said. But many young people are worried about graduating without jobs, something maybe Romney could address.

“I think students are still enthusiastic about (Obama), but not as much as in 2008,” he said.