COLUMBIA, S.C. — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama brought college students to their feet Thursday at the University of South Carolina, reinforcing for many of them why he has captured their attention in the 2008 Democratic presidential race.
Speaking to several hundred college Democrats gathered for a weekend of organizational politics, Obama painted the students a picture of an American journey to a better life, then invited them to come along.
"I need you," Obama told the College Democrats of America, who are holding their national convention in the Palmetto State for the first time. "This is our moment to make a difference."
In his speech, which lasted about 45 minutes, Obama encouraged students, saying they could help solve the problems they face in the world today - problems such as global warming, the war in Iraq and the need for better education - because those before them had helped solve such intractable problems as slavery, segregation and the Vietnam War.
"Now, in this election, it's our turn. It's your generation's turn to write a new page," he said.
Obama drew his strongest reaction when he mentioned the need for health care for college students and a means to pay for college tuition.
Obama said if he is elected president, during his first year in office he would sign a universal health care bill that would allow college graduates to remain on their parents' health insurance until age 25 if they are unable to get a job with coverage.
Drawing on elements of his stump speech, Obama told the students he and his wife, Michelle, had college loans more costly than their mortgage eight years after they graduated.
That connected with his audience.
"He's been there," said 18-year-old Ramya Sekaran, a sophomore majoring in government at New York City's St. John's University. "I thought he was very inspirational, and I think he is someone who can make a difference."
Caterina Rost, a graduate student from Leipzig, West Germany, was equally impressed in her first encounter with Obama.
"This was pretty amazing," said the 24-year-old government student at Amherst University in Massachusetts. "He makes me proud of how far America has come, and he makes my heart beat faster as he shows how much more America can be."
But not everyone was so impressed. One student handed out opposition literature against the Obama campaign, accusing the freshman senator of "contradictions and inconsistencies" that showed Obama "isn't ready for prime time."
Obama is one of five Democratic candidates who will be speaking to college Democrats in Columbia through the weekend. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is scheduled to address the group Friday, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is to speak Saturday.