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Obama visits Florida ahead of bellwether special election

A woman cries while meeting U.S. President Barack Obama at the Coral Reef High School in Miami, Florida, March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
A woman cries while meeting U.S. President Barack Obama at the Coral Reef High School in Miami, Florida, March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Roberta Rampton

MIAMI (Reuters) - President Barack Obama gave a feel-good campaign-style speech at a gymnasium packed with screaming high school students on Friday, sketching out the main points of his populist agenda ahead of a special election in Florida on Tuesday.

Obama did not mention the race for the House of Representatives seat that had been held by the late Republican Bill Young in a congressional district that includes St. Petersburg, a city north of Miami.

The White House said it was a coincidence that his speech came just before the election. Obama and his family plan to spend the rest of his weekend in Florida, at a lush Key Largo private resort.

After he and his wife Michelle toured Coral Reef Senior High School, where students were working on federal student aid applications, he talked to students about his "opportunity agenda" focused on education, training and job measures.

Democrats hope that agenda will resonate with voters in the November congressional elections.

"What binds us together is this idea that if you work hard you can make it, that there's opportunity for all," Obama said. "And we've got to restore that idea for your generation, that everybody has the same chance Michelle and I did."

A prelude to the midterm elections comes on Tuesday, in a hard-fought race between Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink.

The bellwether race will not alter the balance of power in the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority. But it is viewed as a trial run of messaging ahead of November.

A Republican win in the district, which Obama narrowly carried in the 2012 presidential election, could signal their attacks on his signature healthcare reforms known as Obamacare are resonating with voters.

Obama referred to his reforms only very briefly in his speech, but first lady Michelle Obama spoke about healthcare extensively in a trip to Miami on Wednesday, visiting a community health center where counselors were helping people enroll for health insurance on the HealthCare.gov website.

While the president's popularity has been hurt by the rocky rollout of his healthcare law, the first lady's polls remain strong. A Gallup poll this week found 66 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the first lady, compared with 52 percent for her husband.

Obama has stressed that he wants to do all he can to support Democrats ahead of the November ballot, and has warned them that they need to invest time, money and energy into the election, or risk losing their Senate majority.

Republicans believe they have a good chance to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the Senate because of public dissatisfaction with Obama.

Obama headlined fundraisers this week in Virginia and Boston, and on Tuesday will travel to New York for more Democratic fundraising events.

He did not have any fundraising events in Florida, but planned to relax with Michelle and their daughters Malia and Sasha at the private Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, which features two golf courses.

"What he is looking forward to doing is getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Obama will continue to monitor developments in Ukraine, where Russia has taken over the Crimean Peninsula, and will likely speak with other world leaders during his vacation, Earnest said.

"The president is traveling with the regular assortment of communications tools that will allow him to convene in a secure fashion meetings with his national security team, if necessary," he said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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