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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And as this convention week begins, President Obama is holding a Labor Day campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio today. And then he flies to Louisiana to inspect the damage from Hurricane Isaac. Labor Day traditionally marks the beginning of the home stretch in the presidential race. But for many voters, the chance to cast ballots may be sooner than you think.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama held a rally with thousands of students at the University of Colorado this weekend. Just five days earlier, he'd been at Colorado State. Mr. Obama is hoping to harness the cross-state rivalry between the schools in the service of his re-election campaign.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've set up a Rocky Mountain rumble to see which school can register more voters, CU or Colorado State.

HORSLEY: Campaign volunteers worked the crowd to sign up voters on the spot. Mr. Obama also plugged his campaign's on-line registration site, just as he does at every campaign appearance.

OBAMA: Just over two months from now, for the first time in many of your lives, you will get a chance to pick a president.

HORSLEY: In some parts of the country, voters won't have to wait two months to cast their ballots. In Iowa, the window for voting opens in just over three weeks. In Ohio, voting begins Oct. 2nd, more than a month before what's quaintly referred to as Election Day. Nationwide, about 30 percent of all votes were cast early in 2008. Here in Colorado, the ratio was nearly 80 percent. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki says that's one reason the Obama campaign is devoting so much attention to these states, at what could be a pivotal point in the race.

JEN PSAKI: Early voting and encouraging people to vote by mail, get engaged and involved early, has always been a big part of our focus, and in many of these states we've had people on the ground since 2008, and that's where we felt it was important to invest.

HORSLEY: By locking in some votes early, a campaign can minimize last-minute surprises, and Election Day snafus. It also allows for a smoother get out the vote effort, since not all the work has to be focused on a single, frantic day. North Carolina is another state where more than half of all ballots will be cast before Election Day. Mr. Obama has promised to use this week's Democratic convention in North Carolina as an organizing tool. The convention is also a chance to underscore the contrasts between his agenda and the GOP's on issues ranging from health care, to tax policy to green energy.

OBAMA: You know, you can choose an energy plan written by and for the oil companies, or you can choose what I've offered - an all of the above strategy for American energy.

HORSLEY: In Boulder yesterday, Mr. Obama noted that wind and solar power are responsible for some 10,000 jobs in Colorado. One of those jobs belongs to Chris Wolf.

CHRIS WOLF: I spent a year down at the national renewable energy laboratory and now I work for a private firm doing similar stuff, renewable energy research.

HORSLEY: Wolf, who received his MBA from the University of Colorado, was having breakfast yesterday at The Buff, a popular restaurant near the school, when the president dropped by for a surprise visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

HORSLEY: Wolf applauded the president's support for alternative energy. He also liked the president's breakfast order of the Ole Skillet, green chili and eggs on a bed of potatoes. The restaurant was crowded with customers enjoying breakfast mimosas and Bloody Marys. Mr. Obama later warned students at CU all that good food and drink could be a distraction.

OBAMA: And I was thinking to myself, you know I could see folks, like, forgetting to vote.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: They're having too much fun. But that's why you're so important, because you're going to have to set an example for the person next to you in class. You're going to have to remind them, have you voted yet?

HORSLEY: And Mr. Obama is urging supporters not to wait. He's embraced at least the first half of that old Chicago political mantra, vote early - if not often. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Boulder, Colorado.

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