GLEN ALLEN, Virginia (AFP)
Barack Obama rode a wave of youthfulsupport straight into the White House in 2008. Now, Republicans put their hopes in Mitt Romney's young and energetic running mate Paul Ryan to help oust the president in November.
The 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin, if elected, would be the first of Generation X to win such a high office, and the youngest vice president since Richard Nixon took the job six decades ago at the ripe age of 40.
Ryan is of a different generation than the 65-year-old Mitt Romney, who grew up in the aftermath of World War II -- in other words, Ryan's younger than the parents of millions of first-time voters -- and many see that as a good thing.
Conservative magazine The Weekly Standard named him and Majority Leader Eric Cantor the "Young Guns" of the House of Representatives for their novel approach to reforming Washington and fixing fiscal problems.
"Because he's young he gives that extra flair to the campaign that maybe an older candidate wouldn't have," 20-year-old college junior Jacob Lowman from nearby Richmond told AFP during a rally with Ryan at Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Virginia.
In between talking up his controversial budget plan, Ryan aims for an everyman image.
He named favorite beers on the campaign trail, and during a Thursday visit to his alma mater, Miami University in Ohio, he recalled how he needed 14 stitches after playing hockey there.
Lowman was born around the time Ryan was graduating college, and those mere 20 years from campus to candidate -- not to mention Ryan winning a congressional seat at age 28 -- could inspire first-time voters who not only feel disconnected from the political system but are under some of the worst financial strain to hit college students in generations.
Two-thirds of all voters under 30 pulled the lever for Obama four years ago.
"He definitely appealed to the college-age kids," Lowman said. "But now, they want to know that they'll be able to get out of school and get a job."
That's not happening for about half of all college graduates today, according to recent studies cited by Republican leaders.
Virginia's Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling said Obama's "hope and change" mantra has fallen flat, and that young voters have been more adversely impacted by the economy than almost any demographic group.
"Ultimately it is the albatross of debt that this president is hanging around their neck that they're going to have to pay back over the course of their lifetime," Bolling said.
"There is absolutely no justifiable reason for younger voters to trust this president again."
Michael Short, the 26-year-old communications director for the Republican National Committee in Virginia, is counting on Ryan to help drive that message home to young voters.
Ryan's age "certainly helps," Short said. "That really does appeal to the youth vote.... and he can speak to them on the various economic and spending issues that are directly affecting them."
Brian Hood, 20, stopped by the rally with his mother on his way back to nearby Virginia Commonwealth University ahead of the new semester.
"A lot of people voted for Obama from my age group last election because he was hip, he played basketball, he hung out with (hip hop artist) Jay Z," Hood said.
"I think Ryan could do something similar. He works out, he fishes with his bare hands, he hunts -- and how many other candidates drove the Wienermobile in high school?" he added, referring to Ryan's apparent stint behind the wheel of Oscar Mayer's famous 23-foot-long fiberglass hot dog.
Virginia Tech student Hannah Robbins, 19, said Ryan's reputation as a number-crunching fiscal reformer has its appeal, "but I don't know how that will attract young people, they don't really pay attention to that kind of stuff."
"He's a good looking guy!" she beamed.
Her brother William, who at 21 just missed out on voting in 2008, didn't much appreciate his sister's approach.
"Youth don't get inspired with how young you are" as a politician, he said shortly before Ryan took the stage.
"The debt is going to fall on our generation, and we need somebody like Paul Ryan who is looking at the budgets, looking at the deficits and trying to get it under control," he said, giving Hannah a droll, reprimanding look.
"It's our future. We're heavily invested in it, and it should matter a lot to young people and it always surprises me when it doesn't."