By Trevor Hunnicutt
OCEANSIDE, Calif. (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden urged young voters in New Mexico and California on Thursday to vote to protect democracy as part of his final major campaign swing, days ahead of midterm elections that could see his Democrats lose control of the U.S. Congress.
Biden's U.S. West tour began in Albuquerque, where he spoke on his cancellation of billions of dollars in student debt and criticized record oil company profits as Democratic candidates nationwide face headwinds on high gasoline prices and inflation.
Speaking at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California, where Democrat Mike Levin is fighting to hold onto a seat historically held by Republicans, Biden underscored the importance of state and local races across the country and said they could "determine whether our democracy is sustained."
"Democracy is on the ballot," Biden said. "The truth of the matter is that ... this election is going to determine the direction of the country for at least a decade or more."
Opinion polls shows Republicans could regain control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the Senate.
Biden touched on abortion rights, Social Security, even the future of Iran, in a wide-ranging speech that also included stories about his childhood stutter, and the deaths of his first wife and daughter, and later his son, Beau.
Earlier, in New Mexico, Biden said his student debt policies and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's free college tuition program, among the largest in the country, were designed to help young Americans acquire skills to compete in a modern economy.
“Your generation is not going to be ignored, you will not be shunned, you will not be silenced,” Biden told students at Central New Mexico Community College, where he also said people should not be imprisoned for marijuana possession and promised another attempt to ban assault weapons.
Polls show Lujan Grisham leading Republican challenger Mark Ronchetti, a former television weatherman, by around six percentage points. Lujan Grisham has made maintaining access to abortion the centerpiece of her campaign. Ronchetti wants to ban the procedure after 15 weeks, and has hammered Lujan Grisham on crime and the economy.
Biden also spoke in the state's second congressional district where incumbent Republican Congresswoman Yvette Herrell is in a close battle with Democratic challenger Gabe Vasquez.
New Mexico's oil and gas sector is a pivotal issue in the race, and Biden repeated his recent attacks on big oil companies for reaping record profits while pushing up gasoline prices.
"These outrageous profits are the windfalls of war," he told hundreds of supporters at a community center in Albuquerque's South Valley as crowds watched outside on a big screen.
Biden and other Democratic speakers made no mention of high consumer prices that analysts say are overshadowing abortion and other social issues in the election.
Lujan Grisham said Democrats could flip the U.S. House of Representatives seat if voters turned out ahead of Nov. 8 in the newly redistricted area, which leans Democratic and is the only New Mexico congressional district in Republican hands.
"We're a little behind, we catch up fast," she said.
Biden will speak again in California on Friday and then Illinois before traveling to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a rally with former President Barack Obama. He is due to speak at a rally in Maryland on Monday ahead of Tuesday's elections.
Biden, whose job approval percentage rating in the low 40s is a drag on Democratic candidates, is fighting to help his party hold off a strong challenge mounted by Republicans for control of the U.S. Congress amid grave concerns about inflation and the overall state of the economy.
Opposition parties historically fare better in midterm elections, providing a balance for new presidents in the second half of their terms.
Biden warned on Wednesday night that Republican loyalists to former President Donald Trump are a threat to democracy as they refuse to say they will accept the results of elections if they are defeated on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Eric Beech and Andrea Shalal in Washington, Trevor Hunnicutt in Albuquerque and Oceanside, and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell, Josie Kao, Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast)