KENT: President Barack Obama had a recurring theme during his remarks at Kent State University: Don’t boo. Vote.
Whenever Obama mentioned Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, and the crowd booed, this was the refrain he gave them. The audience even picked up on the chant, finishing it for him by the end of his 33-minute speech Wednesday evening.
Obama tried to do two things with his visit to Kent — lay out the differences between him and his opponent and urge the young people who are an important part of his support base to vote.
“I still believe in you,” he told the crowd of about 6,600 packed into the M.A.C. Center. “If you stand with me, make phone calls, go door to door, we will win Portage County! We will win Ohio!”
Before the event, Obama spoke at Bowling Green State University and then flew into the Akron-Canton Airport to get to Kent State.
Obama and Romney were both in Northeast Ohio on the same afternoon, with Romney visiting a company in Bedford and then heading to Toledo for the last stop in a three-day bus trip across the state. The dueling appearances underscore the continued importance of the Buckeye State in the Nov. 6 election, where the latest polls show Obama leading.
Kent State students began lining up at 10 p.m. Tuesday for the event, bringing along tents, sling chairs and umbrellas, which came in handy. About 700 students who weren’t able to get into the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center watched the event live streamed on a large screen in the Student Union ballroom.
Dorothy Jackson, a former deputy mayor for Akron, saw Obama in person for the first time at the event, though she waved to him when his motorcade passed her Akron house during another recent campaign trip.
“I’m just like a kid,” said Jackson, who was among those seated in the bleachers. “I’m so excited I’d be willing to stand up.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, contrasted Obama with Romney on several issues, including student loans. He said some students in the crowd might benefit from Pell Grants that provide them with lower interest rates than they’d get from banks.
“Mitt might call you a mooch, but we call you the future job creators,” he said, referring to recently publicized remarks by Romney about the number of Americans receiving some form of government assistance.
Ryan urged the audience to help the campaign and encouraged people to vote early or on Nov. 6. Early voting in Ohio starts Tuesday.
Bryan Staul, a Kent state senior, introduced Obama, saying that Romney “wrote off 47 percent of the country last week” in remarks that were captured on video.
“He thinks we’re deadbeats. He thinks we want handouts. Is that true Kent State?” Staul asked.
“No!” the audience yelled.
“We want a president who will fight for all of us,” Staul said.
Obama tailored many of his remarks to his youthful audience, emphasizing how education is a top priority for him. He said having a good education gave him and his wife, Michelle, the opportunities they had and called it “the gateway to the middle class.” He said he wants to recruit math and science teachers, train workers for new jobs in community colleges, improve early education and continue Pell Grants.
“We can gut education to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy or we can make it so that no student, no family has to set aside a college acceptance letter just because they don’t have the money,” he said.
Obama challenged Romney for not providing enough specifics on the challenger’s economic plans and said the details he has given don’t add up. He said Romney has a “deficit-expansion plan.”
At one point Obama misspoke, saying he wants to “export more jobs” when he meant to say “products.”
“Excuse me,” he said, not missing a beat. “I was channeling my opponent there for a second.”
Obama pledged to get tough on China for trade violations, promote steps so that America controls more of its own energy and reduce the deficit “in a way that doesn’t stick it to the middle class.”
“I’d say to the whole state of Ohio: ‘I don’t know how many will be with me this time around. I’m running to be your president. I’m not fighting to create Democratic jobs or Republican jobs. I’m fighting to create American jobs,’?” Obama said to thunderous cheering and applause, concluding his remarks.
One Kent State professor listening to Obama’s speech had a good reason for wanting to see him — they’re former classmates. Jonathan Selinger and Obama graduated from Punahou High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1979.
They weren’t buddies, but Selinger has followed his career and supported him in the 2008 campaign and this one.
“He was a jock. I was a nerd. Now, he’s president. I’m still a nerd,” said Selinger, a professor of chemical physics. “One of us has moved forward.”
If Obama looked out the window as his motorcade drove to Kent State, he might have noticed a peculiar site: chairs lining the road and in front yards.
The Portage County Tea Party hopes he noticed. The tea party, one of the largest and most active in Ohio, built and displayed a 12-foot chair and several others along state Route 43 in protest of the president’s visit, an homage to actor Clint Eastwood’s speech during the recent Republican Party convention that nominated Romney. The chairs featured signs that said, “Empty Chair = Empty Promises of Barack Obama.”
“We’re hoping he sees the chair as he drives by and gets a chuckle out of it — maybe even says something about it,” said Tom Zawistowski, the group’s leader. “It really has been fun.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith.