COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The marching band is all ready on its familiar perch inside Ohio State's college basketball arena, but the scoreboard is now plastered with bright blue Obama-Biden signs -- and the stands feature red, white, and blue bunting as President Obama finally launches his campaign for real.
"This is where the campaign starts right here, it's the kickoff for 2012," excited 28-year-old Travis Jones said.
"And hopefully it ends here too with Obama staying in office."
Aides say the president will have a new stump speech entitled "Moving America Forward" with familiar themes about the middle class sprinkled with a few new applause lines. Organizers say the Value City Arena has a seating capacity of 17,700 to 20,000, while about 30,000 supporters have RSVP'd for the event, though it's unclear how many will show up.
First Lady Michelle Obama joins the president for some rare joint appearances as they launch the first two official public rallies of the campaign here at Ohio State and later in the day at Virginia Commonwealth University with an eye on trying to revive the enthusiasm of young people on college campuses that helped carry him to a historic victory in 2008.
"The most important thing is getting youth involved," said Jones. "Everything that's happening right now is going to affect us."
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's campaign has a campaign bus parked down the street from the basketball arena here to try and sign up voters to the GOP side. Both sides desperately want this battleground's 18 electoral votes, which is why Romney himself is planning to bracket Obama's weekend appearance by quickly holding a town hall in Cleveland on Monday.
In an open letter to Obama published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday, Romney wrote, "Mr. President, forgive me for being blunt, but when it comes to economic affairs, you're out of your depth."
Romney added, "I recognize, of course, as do all Americans, that you inherited an economic crisis. But you've now had three years to turn things around. The record of those three years is clear. Your policies have failed, not only in Ohio, but across the nation."
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, chatting with reporters inside the arena before the President's arrival, fired back that the economy is recovering and it's because of White House policies. "It didn't happen by accident," he said.
LaBolt said the President's stump speech will "look at the journey the nation has been on for the last three years" and will focus on how "the manufacturing sector is on the rebound and the auto industry is back."
"We can continue on that path forward or return to the policies Mitt Romney has proposed and we've tried before," added LaBolt, charging it would mean "tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and fewer rules for Wall Street."
A new Quinnipiac poll this week showed that when asked whether the economy is beginning to recover, a clear majority of Ohio voters seem to agree with the Obama campaign, with 55 percent saying yes and 41 percent saying no.
On the negative side, however, the same poll shows Obama is not getting much credit for any comeback here in a head-to-head matchup with Romney. Voters in Ohio said Romney would do a better job on the economy by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent.
81-year-old Dan Ryan may not be part of the targeted youth vote here, but he said in an interview he has been volunteering at phone banks for the President and believes he has done a good job on the economy despite fierce opposition from Republicans.
"The people have seen what he's done against formidable odds," said Ryan. "All [Republicans] had in mind is make him fail. Against tremendous odds he's really pulled things off."
Caitlyn Homol, an 18-year-old student here at Ohio State, acknowledged it may be tough for the President as in incumbent to revive the enthusiasm young people last time but she believes in the end that support will be there.
"Getting out the youth vote is always tough," she said. "But I think people are pretty pumped about the campaign on campus."
This is Obama's 21st visit to the battleground of Ohio, so the Republican National Committee has mocked this kickoff by charging he has had "more than a year of campaign-style 'official' events and a record number of fundraisers," and demanding that he reimburse taxpayers for some of his previous visits to critical states.
"They threw out 'hope and change' along with the '08 bumper stickers," Sean Spicer, RNC Communications Director said. "Now, the campaign is all about hype and blame."
LaBolt dismissed the attacks by saying Republican presidents also visited battleground states for official events and it would be ridiculous "to suggest the President of the United States be walled off from the American people at the White House."