By Jeff Mason
CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (Reuters) - Describing his own struggle to pay off college debt and taking another dig at his likely White House rival's wealth, President Barack Obama sought on Tuesday to expand his popularity among young voters with a call to make education more affordable.
During a multi-state trip to highlight rising education costs, a key theme of his re-election campaign, Obama said he knew firsthand how paying for university could hurt families and ding the economy.
"I didn't just get some talking points about this. I didn't just get a policy briefing on this. Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes," the Democrat told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We didn't come from wealthy families. So when we graduated from college and grad school, we had a mountain of debt. When we got married, we got poorer together," he said, noting the couple only finished paying off their student loans about eight years ago.
The president appeared in a comfortable campaign mode during his speech there and later in Boulder, Colorado, where he addressed a crowd estimated at 10,800, reminiscent of the larger crowds he drew on the campaign trial in 2008.
Some members of the audience chanted "four more years!"
The Republican National Committee called it a "taxpayer funded campaign event."
Though Obama has talked about his modest background and his student loans before, his emphasis on wealth seemed aimed at Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire son of a former auto executive and Michigan governor, who is almost certain to the face him in the November 6 election.
The Obamas attended some of the most expensive universities in the United States. The president went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and the first lady went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Romney also attended Harvard for law school and a graduate degree in business.
"We've got to make college more affordable for you," Obama said to applause from students at the University of Colorado.
Obama's two-day trip, which will include a stop in Iowa - another state he hopes to win in November - centers on his effort to get Congress to extend low interest rates on college loans to more than 7.4 million students.
If lawmakers fail to act, rates on the student loans will double on July 1 to 6.8 percent - this at a time when other loans boast near record low rates. Obama called on Congress to act to prevent that from happening.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has also urged Congress to act, while getting in a dig at the Democrat as well.
"President Obama's failed leadership on the economy has led to the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, where 50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed," Romney told reporters on Monday.
"Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the current low rate on subsidized undergraduate Stafford loans. I also hope the president and Congress can pass the extension responsibly, that offsets its cost in a way that doesn't harm the job prospects of young Americans."
A new study showed Obama is gaining ground with young voters, who helped propel him to the presidency in 2008.
He sought to play up that advantage on the trip. In North Carolina he made a point of shaking hands with students who did not get into the arena. In Colorado he made an unannounced stop at a popular local bar and restaurant, where he talked with young people about their studies and business ideas.
Outside the restaurant a woman spilled yogurt on him, giving the president a new laugh line to use in his speech.
The White House says roughly 160,000 students in North Carolina will rack up some $1,000 in additional debt without congressional action. In Colorado, 167,000 students would suffer, while 7.4 million students nationwide would be affected.
Obama's re-election campaign dismissed Romney's support for congressional action, saying the former Massachusetts governor supported a Republican budget proposal that would result in higher student loan rates and fewer education grants.
Republicans insist that Democrats created the problem in the first place when they controlled Congress and passed a bill that cut rates on subsidized Stafford loans in 2007 but allowed them to revert back to higher levels after four years.
And a spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said federal student loan rates would also double in 2013 under Obama's budget.
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis and Steve Holland. Editing by Christopher Wilson)