AMES, Iowa — With all eyes on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, President Obama tried to divert a little political attention his way with a two-day campaign trip to college campuses in the swing states of Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
Underscoring the importance of the youth vote to his campaign, Obama addressed students at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday before flying to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. He will round out the trip Wednesday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Obama’s decision to campaign during the week of the GOP convention reflects the tightness of his race with opponent Mitt Romney and his campaign’s reluctance to leave anything to chance, particularly in the nine battleground states widely viewed as key to winning on Nov. 6. They include Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
Candidates have traditionally taken a low public profile during their opponents’ nominating conventions. But the practice of “bracketing,” or sending high-level surrogates and even candidates themselves to steal attention at opposing events, has become commonplace this year. Vice President Biden was originally scheduled to spend Monday and Tuesday in Florida to generate media attention during the GOP event, but his trip was canceled when Isaac began threatening the Florida Gulf Coast.
Isaac, upgraded from tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane midday Tuesday, still may prove the winner in the race for media attention this week — and that could help Obama more than Romney. As the storm continues to barrel toward the New Orleans region, Obama will be able to lead federal preparations — and response — in a way that only a sitting president can.
“We’ve been getting ready for this storm for days,” Obama said before an outdoor crowd standing in the shadow of Iowa State University’s campus clock tower. “We’ve got response teams and supplies in place. America will be there no matter what this storm brings, because no matter what disaster strikes, we are not Democrats first. We are not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re one family, and we help our neighbors in need.”
But Obama quickly pivoted to his stump speech, invoking feisty language to criticize Romney’s plans to roll back Obamacare and lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
“Maybe we should call his plan ‘Romney Doesn’t Care,’ ’’ Obama said. “Because I do care. And this law is here to stay.”
The split-screen political environment created by Isaac was evident during a briefing for reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. Press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would be working as both commander in chief and candidate. “He is also conducting campaign events but . . . will be getting information regularly on the status of the storm and on the status of the federal response.”
Campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki followed up, leaving open the possibility that Obama could visit storm-damaged areas later in the week.
“As Jay mentioned, the president continues to monitor what’s happening,” Psaki said. “If anything needs to be changed, that is something we will adjust.”
In Tampa, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus did much the same two-step as he opened Tuesday’s convention session.
“I’d like to offer our thoughts and prayers for the safety of those in the path of the hurricane,” Priebus said, before quickly returning to the business at hand — disassembling Obama’s presidency and establishing Romney as the solution to the country’s woes.
There remains some peril for Obama, however, in striking the right balance between the aggressive campaign swing and showing the appropriate amount of concern about the storm.
In a brief statement Tuesday morning from the White House, Obama said the federal government is ready to help when the storm strikes, and he urged residents of the affected areas to take warnings seriously.
“As we prepare for Isaac to hit, I want to encourage local residents of the Gulf Coast to listen to your local officials and follow their directions, including if they tell you to evacuate,” Obama said. “Now’s not the time to tempt fate. Now’s not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously.”
Obama noted that he approved a disaster declaration for Louisiana on Monday. He added: “The hardest work, of course, is still ahead. And as president, I’ll continue to make sure that the federal government is doing everything possible to help the American people prepare for, and recover from, this dangerous storm.”
His campus tour comes just in time for the start of fall classes and gives Obama a chance to entice students to sign up for the reelection effort. Obama enjoys a notable advantage over Romney among young voters in a number of public polls; his challenge is making sure they actually turn out to vote.
Psaki, in an e-mail to reporters Monday night, said the president will focus on connecting directly with youths on this trip by explaining “what is at stake for young people in this country and the choice they face as we look ahead to the election in November.”
The campaign is reaching out to young voters in other ways. Its fellowship and internship programs have attracted thousands more applicants than there were available positions. And the campaign is expanding campus-based neighborhood teams and voter-registration drives.
The youth vote was viewed as a critical component of Obama’s victory four years ago, but young voters did not make up a significantly bigger slice of the electorate in 2008 than the previous presidential contest in 2004. Their percentage of the electorate rose from 17 percent to 18 percent during that time.
The test of whether the campaign can repeat its success among young voters is really just beginning. In 2008, most new voters, including students, weren’t registered until after Labor Day in the most critical battleground states.
David A. Fahrenthold in Tampa contributed to this report.