IOWA CITY, Iowa — President Obama tried to pit Republicans against young voters Wednesday on the issue of rising student-loan interest rates, while the campaign of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney served notice it intends to battle for the votes of a college-age electorate that broke for Mr. Obama overwhelmingly in 2008.
“Congress needs to act right now to prevent interest rates on federal student loans from shooting up and shaking you down,” Mr. Obama told students at the University of Iowa, on his third visit to a swing-state college campus in two days. “It makes me sick just thinking about it.”
Republicans accused Mr. Obama of using students as election-year pawns in this week’s tour to distract from the weak job prospects young voters will face upon graduation.
“Young voters should see this tour for what it really is: an election-year gimmick that will do nothing to bring much-needed jobs to our nation’s young adults and recent graduates,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in a statement provided by the Romney campaign. “America’s young people have been especially hard-hit by the Obama economy.”
Young voters helped propel Mr. Obama to victory in 2008, when he captured 66 percent of voters under age 30 against Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. And a Harvard University Institute of Politics poll this week showed Mr. Obama increasing his lead over Mr. Romney among voters ages 18 to 29. The president now holds an edge of 43 percent to 26 percent, up from an 11-point lead in December.
But the GOP sees signs that Mr. Obama’s grip on the youth vote isn’t as strong as it was four years ago. In the Harvard poll, for example, Mr. Obama led by 23 percentage points for likely voters age 25 to 29, but by only 12 percentage points by those under 24.
The Harvard survey also found that young voters were less likely to vote and volunteer for campaigns, as the weak economy serves as a drag on their enthusiasm.
“Young Americans don’t need more campaign slogans and promises. They need a president who will build an economy that helps gets them back to work,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The student-loan dispute has helped to jump-start the electoral battle over the youth vote.
Interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans will double to 6.8 percent on July 1, a date set when Congress voted in 2007 to cut the rate in half, unless lawmakers act. Many Republicans, including Mr. Romney, say they agree with the president that the rate increase should be blocked, but break sharply with the administration over how to pay for the roughly $6 billion annual cost.
The president blamed Republican lawmakers for the lack of action, and ridiculed the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, for saying that Mr. Obama is using the issue to distract young voters from the weak economy.
“This is about the economy,” the president said to an audience of more than 3,000 students in a gymnasium. “What economy are they talking about? You are the economy. This is about your job security. If you do well, the economy does well.”
He also derided GOP lawmakers who express concern about adding to the federal debt, saying, “These are the same folks who ran up the deficits over the last decade.” As with his previous appearances this week on college campuses, the president didn’t mention the trillion-dollar annual deficits that have been recorded since he took office in 2009.
Mr. Romney has endorsed the student-loan proposal, saying he favors a “temporary” extension of the low rate, and the House is set to vote on a one-year extension this week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, noted that Mr. Obama didn’t even vote on the student-loan issue as a senator five years ago.
“Today, the president will hold another rally at which he’ll tell students that unless Congress acts, their interest rates will go up in July,” Mr. McConnell said. “What he won’t tell them is that he cared so little about the legislation that created this problem five years ago that he didn’t even show up for the vote. And that once he became president, he didn’t even bother to include a fix for it in his own budget.”
In North Carolina, where Mr. Obama visited Tuesday, one report has found there were about 48,500 fewer voters ages 18 to 25 last November, compared with November 2008, and that about 80 percent of those lost voters were Democrats. Mr. Obama won the state by fewer than 15,000 votes four years ago.