"All of the hard work, all of the progress we've made, it's on the line," she said. "This election will be even closer than the last one. That's the only guarantee. And it could come down to a handful of swing states like here in Colorado."
Obama tailored her pitch to the college audience, pointing out the administration doubled funding for Pell Grants. The administration's health care reform law allows young people to remain on their parents' insurance until age 26, she added.
The Obama campaign is working to bounce back from a widely criticized debate performance by President Barack Obama last week. Colorado's nine electoral votes are highly coveted by both campaigns.
With less than a month to go before Election Day, Obama used her 30-minute speech to urge supporters to vote early or vote by mail. "For the young people, this is about the country you will inherit," she said.
Obama said the economy was on the brink of collapse when her husband took office. She recounted his bailout of the auto industry. "Barack had the backs of American workers," she said. "That is why today, the auto industry is back."
Obama noted the stock market and employment picture has improved.
"While we have a long way to go to completely rebuild the economy, there are so many signs that we're heading in the right direction," she said.
She also took a dig at Republican candidate Mitt Romney's plan to cut federal funding for public broadcasting. "We all know good and well that cutting 'Sesame Street' is no way to balance our budget," she said.
Obama defended the social safety net, saying no one gets where they are on their own. "We believe in an American where no one goes broke because someone got sick," she said.
The First Lady was introduced by Fort Lewis College student body president Byron Tsabetsaye, a Navajo student from Arizona.
Durango city councilor Christina Rinderle spoke earlier in the afternoon. "It's such an incredible honor to host such a fine woman whose values align with Durango," she said.
Rinderle described Durango as a place more interested in building bike trails than monuments to success.
Free tickets to the First Lady's speech at Whalen Gymnasium quickly ran out when they were distributed Sunday. On Wednesday, a line of hundreds of supporters snaked around the campus hours before she took the stage. More than 3,000 attended.
The First Lady's visit to Durango may be the closest either campaign comes to Farmington. In March, the president visited Carlsbad, and the First Lady went to Albuquerque in May.
In August, Republican candidate Mitt Romney campaigned in Hobbs, where he laid out his energy policy.
Durango has a recent history of hosting presidential campaigns. In 2008, John McCain held a campaign rally at Durango High School.
San Juan County, a bastion for the Republican Party in a Democratic-leaning state, has largely been ignored by the presidential campaigns this year. Farmington last held a presidential campaign event when President George W. Bush, seeking re-election in 2004, held a raucous rally at Ricketts Park.
"It was packed," said State Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington.
Strickler said visits by presidential candidates often boost candidates for U.S. Senate or even local statehouse races. San Juan County voters turned out strong for Bush that year. "It certainly helps," he said.
In 2008, McCain easily carried San Juan County, racking up 27,869 votes to Obama's 18,028. McCain's gains in the Farmington area had little effect, however, as Obama coasted to victory in New Mexico.
New Mexico's Democratic lean could explain Obama's and Romney absence from the Farmington area, Strickler said.
"New Mexico was considered safe for Obama, so I guess Republicans are going to have to minimize their time in New Mexico to capitalize on the swing states," he said. "They're just playing the numbers."