DAVIS (CBS/AP) — Former President Bill Clinton implored thousands of students and Democratic supporters Tuesday to act in what he says are their own best interests by supporting Democratic congressional candidates in newly competitive California districts.

Clinton appeared on an outdoor stage at the University of California, Davis with four Democratic House candidates. Incumbent Reps. John Garamendi and Jerry McNerney, and challengers Ami Bera and Jose Hernandez are running in tight races in the Sacramento area.

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Clinton said the four, from diverse backgrounds, represent what America is all about.

They all believe that “a country of shared prosperity, of a growing middle class, where poor people have a dignified, honorable chance to work their way into it, is way better than ‘trickle down,”’ Clinton said to cheers.

The former president also said he wanted to correct the record from last week’s presidential debate, after which President Barack Obama was criticized for failing to respond to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s claims about the economy and other issues. He said he thought debate moderators were supposed to “ring a bell or something,” when they heard falsehoods.

“The bell never rang, so we’re going to ring it today,” Clinton said.

The crowd of some 5,000 students and others was overwhelmingly supportive in this liberal enclave about 15 miles west of the state capital.

Clinton said last week’s figures showing the nationwide jobless rate has fallen to 7.8 percent were a disappointment to Republicans, who he said made it their top priority to keep unemployment above 8 percent through Election Day.

“And then, there’s the terribly inconvenient moment—numbers again—when for the first time in four years, unemployment actually dropped below 8 percent. Honestly, I never saw such a bunch of long faces in my life,” he said to laughter.

California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said Republicans in Congress have approved several job creation bills, but the Democratically controlled Senate has failed to act on them.

“The Republican plan recognizes that people saving money is how businesses are started,” he said. “The Democrats’ high tax plans thwart savings and reduce business startups. You can’t start a business without savings and you can’t have savings with punitive tax rates.”

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Clinton praised each of the four congressional candidates, saying that Garamendi and McNerney were working hard to create jobs and protect veterans benefits, and Bera, a physician from Elk Grove, and Hernandez, an engineer and former space shuttle astronaut from Modesto, epitomized the American dream.

Bera gave Rep. Dan Lungren a serious challenge two years ago and hopes to capitalize on a slight Democratic registration edge in the suburban Sacramento district. Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican freshman and U.S. Air Force veteran from Turlock, faces Hernandez in a largely agricultural district in the San Joaquin Valley.

All four races are competitive for the first time in decades after an independent citizens’ panel authorized by the voters redrew the congressional districts.

The novelty of so many hotly contested congressional races has attracted money and attention to California, where as many as a dozen races are considered competitive. Both major parties and outside political action committees are pouring millions of dollars into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Clinton’s appearance Tuesday came as county elections clerks begin distributing vote-by-mail ballots, which could account for more than half the votes cast in November.

He drew the loudest response for his defense of Obama’s higher education and student loan policies, adopted before the November 2010 election in which Democrats lost control of Congress. He credited Obama for increasing the funding limits for federal Pell grants for students, lowering loan interest rates and moving loan repayments to an income-based system.

“You would never have to drop out of college because of the cost, and you would never have to drop out of college because you were afraid you couldn’t pay your loan, and you would never have to pick a job when you got out of college because it was necessary to make your loan payment. Your loan payment will be determined by your salary, not the other way around,” Clinton said to vigorous applause.

Years of state budget cuts have led to soaring tuition and reduced course offerings at California’s two- and four-year colleges. Undergraduate tuition in the UC system is $12,191 this year, not including room, board, books or campus fees. When Clinton left office, in the 2000-01 academic year, UC’s base tuition was $3,429.

Still, most in the crowd were too young to remember Clinton’s time in office, relying instead upon their parents’ impressions as most will cast their first presidential election ballots this year.

“Growing up, Bill Clinton was always just a big deal in our household,” said Jasmine Mirelez, 19, of Rancho Cucamonga, a registered Democrat. “We had, like, a (budget) surplus then. That sounds really great.”

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