Republicans in Virginia are betting that young voters will stay home on Election Day rather than turn out in droves as they did four years ago when they helped boost Democrat Barack Obama into the White House.
"If there's a demographic group that I think will be different than four years ago, it will be young people," said Republican Senate candidate George Allen. "Young people, in my view, are not going to have that same sort of enthusiasm with the reality of this terrible job market."
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed that 42 percent of likely voters ages under 29 are "very enthusiastic" about the election, for the lowest enthusiasm of any age bracket. Seven out of 10 voters over 60, for instance, felt great enthusiasm.
Allen and other Republicans argue that students burdened by record levels of debt and dismal job prospects will be far less enthusiastic about Obama this time around. Even Democrats acknowledge that the under-29 crowd is hard to mobilize.
"Some students who may not be as informed might think their vote doesn't matter, and I think that might be a reason they don't turn out," said Julia Smyers, president of the College Democrats at James Madison University. "Students aren't as enthusiastic and maybe a bit more apathetic. Our job is to switch that."
The 2008 turnout among college-age students was the highest in a generation, according to census data, and two-thirds of them voted for Obama.
Young voters remain largely in the Democratic camp. Support for Allen's opponent, Democrat Tim Kaine, among those under 30 jumped from 54 percent in September to 65 percent in October.
That reality is reflected in both parties' efforts to mobilize their voters. Democrats, confident most college students are on their side, don't ask for party affiliation when registering students on campus, while college Republicans register only those committed to the GOP.
"There was a palpable feeling in 2008 that the youth were driving the race, and we don't see that today," said Craig Brians, political science professor at Virginia Tech. "The positive enthusiasm is not there. But there's negative enthusiasm that I hear quite a bit for [Republican presidential nominee] Mitt Romney. The question becomes: Are they going to turn out or not?"
Obama will appear at George Mason University on Friday, looking to re-energize his base. He reaches out to college kids by emphasizing his efforts to keep interest rates on student loans low and making it easier for them to stay on their parents' health insurance.
Republicans hope to capitalize on Romney's strong debate performance Wednesday night to counter those efforts, said Matt Wertman, chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Virginia.
"Young people are hurt by Obama," Wertman said. "And we're starting to see that translate to more support for Romney."