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Obama groundswell began at ASU shortly after 2006 visit

Kevin Reid, a graduate student at Arizona State University, watches President Barack Obama on television from the ASU downtown campus earlier this year. Tonight Obama will speak at ASU’s commencement ceremony. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Barack Obama first visited Arizona State University in 2006 as a U.S. senator from Illinois who was hitting the campaign trail for fellow congressional Democrats.

At the same time, whether Obama knew it or not, he was laying the groundwork for what would become one of the country's largest networks of university student supporters during the presidential election of 2008.

"He drew a lot of crowds because he was such a good speaker," said Lisa Fernandez, former president of the ASU Young Democrats. "But no one at that time new whether or not he was going to run."

Tonight, he returns as president to address an expected 63,000 graduates and family and friends at Arizona State University's Sun Devil's Stadium. Although it is the president's first commencement address since taking office in January, the speech will mark the third time Obama has spoken at the ASU campus.

An official push among students for Obama began days after the candidate announced his intentions to run in February 2007. The movement began among a group of politically active students after Hillary Clinton had locked up much of the early support among young Democrats.

"At first, it was really only the politically active students who supported Obama," Fernandez said. "This was when most people on campus thought Sen. Clinton had it locked up."  

More than 300 students joined the ASU Students for Obama, making it one of the largest student campaign organizations in the country. And thousands more on campus campaigned informally, with megaphones, T-shirts and varied forms of solicitation.

The group hosted 1,200 campaign events, made calls to nearly 10,000 Valley residents and raised more than $26,000 for the Democratic nominee.

"He was just unlike any candidate we had seen in our lifetimes," Fernandez said.

The success of the organization prompted Obama's return to ASU in October 2007, when he addressed a crowd of 7,000 students.  

Officials at the White House said Obama chose ASU as the location for his first commencement speech as president because of an invitation letter sent by ASU President Michael Crow. The official explanation, though, does not answer the question ‘Why Arizona' for many Democrats at the Capitol and on campus. 

Rep. Ed Ableser from Tempe said Obama probably chose ASU because of its dedication to research and innovation.

"ASU is on the forefront of academic pursuits in the country," he said. "There is no other university that is accomplishing the intellectual feats that we are doing, and I think President Obama sees the value of having other universities modeling our style." 

Fernandez said Obama's decision to speak at the university is the president's way of sending a message to state lawmakers considering further budget cuts to education.

"I think he is sending a message about the budget as a whole and especially about the cuts to ASU, which have been so large," she said. "We are grateful that he is drawing attention to this very important issue."

Rep. David Lujan from Phoenix said the president's speech is part of a larger goal to make Arizona a blue state in 2012.

In the past several decades, a majority of voters in Arizona have cast ballots in favor of Republican presidential candidates. Arizona is the only state in the Southwest that voted against Obama last November.

Democratic President Bill Clinton, though, was able to defeat Republican Bob Dole in 1996 with a margin of 53,000 votes. And if Arizona could be added to the Democratic column once again in 2012, it would provide Obama with a stronghold in the region.   

"I think Arizona is an important state to President Obama," Lujan said. "Arizona has the real potential to be a blue state for Obama in 2012, so I imagine we will be seeing more of him in the next few years."

For his third visit, Obama will become the first president to speak in an Arizona commencement ceremony. But he is not the first president to visit ASU while in office. In fact, ASU has hosted four presidents before him.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to visit the campus in 1911 when he spoke on the main lawn of what was then known as Tempe Normal School.

President Lyndon Johnson visited the university 61 years later when he spoke at the memorial service for Sen. Carl Hayden, which was held at the university's Gammage Auditorium. Hayden and Johnson had served together in the Senate for more than 12 years.

Bill Clinton was the first president to visit the campus during an election year. The Democrat spoke in front of 20,000 people outside of Gammage Auditorium five days before the 1996 presidential election.

Clinton returned to the campus in 2006 and 2008 to raise support for Democratic candidates.

George W. Bush also came to ASU for one of the 2004 presidential debates against Democratic Nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Tonight's pre-ceremony show includes an appearance by rock star Alice Cooper, mariachis, a gospel choir and a marching band.

ASU will begin allowing people to enter Sun Devil Stadium's north gates at 2:30 p.m. with staggered entry times thereafter until the gates close at 7 p.m. The pre-ceremony will kick off at 4:45 p.m.

The early arrival times are aimed at reducing the size of the crowd waiting in line at any one time in weather expected to reach a 99-degree high.

Still, ASU officials are warning people to expect up to a 90-minute wait to clear security checkpoints, which will be managed by U.S. Secret Service agents.

-The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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