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At GWU town hall, Obama uses new technology to deliver a familiar message

By Anne E. Kornblut
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 10:35 PM

Like a father trying to exhibit coolness to a wary teenager, President Obama has been making an elaborate effort to appeal to younger voters in the final weeks before the midterm elections. He sat down with Rolling Stone magazine for an interview, followed the rapper B.o.B onstage at DAR Constitution Hall and launched a four-campus series of rallies, all in the hopes of motivating enough 18- to 29-year-olds to vote.

On Tuesday night, Obama took his youth tour a step further, fielding the first-ever presidential question via the Internet-calling service Skype.

"I'm very excited," he told an audience at George Washington University's Marvin Center, as a woman from Illinois named Paula appeared on the big screen, ready to quiz the president through her webcam at home.

But if the technology was an exciting challenge, the question was decidedly not.

"In this last push to get out the vote, is there an overarching message or approach you think volunteers should take to persuade voters to get back to the polls on Nov. 2?" Paula asked.

Obama went through a familiar riff about encouraging voters to understand the differences between the two parties. "What the other side stands for are the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place," he said.

The next question - asked via Twitter - was even less of a test.

"Can we inform people that the campaign slogan was 'Yes, we can,' not 'Yes, we can in 21 months?' " a woman named Maureen in New Jersey tweeted. "It took 8 years to get us into this mess."

"Well, that's sort of a softball, but I appreciate it, Maureen," Obama said, laughing.

And so it went for nearly an hour of what was billed as a "special conversation" between Obama and his supporters, as the president sought to jump-start enthusiasm among the younger voters who played a critical role in his election.

Although Obama is widely believed to have triggered a surge in young voters in the 2008 campaign, that is not the case. About 18 percent of the electorate was voters age 29 and under, compared with 17 percent four years earlier. But Obama won a much higher share of those voters - 34 percent - than John Kerry had four years earlier, giving him a significant advantage.

Now, Democratic officials are hoping those same voters will break from historical trends and make their mark on the midterms, instead of leaving it to more reliable, older voters.

For Tuesday's event, which was billed as a town-hall meeting, officials solicited questions through Facebook, Twitter and Skype. An official with the Democratic National Committee said the questions that were used were selected in advance, in order to be integrated into the technology of the event, but were chosen to be representative of all of those submitted.

DNC chairman Tim Kaine was piped into the event via satellite from New Hampshire, where he was campaigning alongside Rep. Paul Hodes, who is running for the Senate. Obama was introduced by Sarah Hinkfuss, a young woman from Milwaukee who voted for the first time in 2008.

Beyond his campus outreach, Obama has been making a substantive appeal to younger voters, emphasizing his reforms of the student loan system and a provision in the health care overhaul that allows children to stay on their parents' health insurance longer, until they turn 26 years old.

The president is scheduled to meet Wednesday with local college students and their families to discuss the "American Opportunity Tax Credit," a provision of the stimulus package that expanded tax credits for college students. Obama has proposed making the provision permanent. The Treasury Department will also release a report on the tax credit's benefits on Wednesday.

Before he left GWU on Tuesday, Obama found time to revisit his most provocative campaign argument of late: the funding of this year's campaigns.

That, too, came in response to a relatively tame question, this one from a voter named James in California. "How best can citizens work to mitigate the effect of corporate money on elections?" James asked.

With his favorite subject teed up for him, Obama said it is impossible to know what special interests are funding massive advertisement sweeps across the country, and he theorized that they could be coming from oil companies or banks. Or, he added: "We don't know if they're being funded by foreign corporations, because they're not disclosed."

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