CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are very different people, a generation apart with vastly dissimilar narratives. But their roles in the 2012 campaign are remarkably similar.
Never have two spouses in the same election been such significant and strategic players in their husbands' campaigns.
Both President Barack Obama and his GOP rival Mitt Romney are considered elusive emotionally and dependent on their wives to channel their feelings to voters -- although the president outshines the former Massachusetts governor as a communicator.
But when Michelle Obama addresses the convention tonight, her message will not be notably different from Ann Romney's in Tampa, where the GOP met last week. She will try to illuminate her husband as president, explaining why he made certain decisions as president, what drives him and how he sees the next four years evolving.
Headed into the final stretch of this election, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are aggressively campaigning, raising money and carrying vital parts of their husbands' message. "She has such insight into the president as a person, what motivates him, what informs his worldview," says David Axelrod, one of the president's closest advisers. "She's going to talk about the past 3? years. There is no one else who can do that as powerfully."
It's the latest step into the spotlight by Michelle Obama in the 2012 campaign: She has been on the stump for months, crisscrossing the country to energize the base.
Given her experience in the 2008 campaign -- when the slightest misstep could drive an angry backlash -- campaign sources say the first lady will not be taking on the Republicans on Tuesday night, or ever. "She will be positive," says one source, who has seen the speech. "She will not criticize Gov. Romney or [vice presidential nominee] Congressman [Paul] Ryan."
In 2008, Obama told her story; tonight, she will tell the president's.
The first lady will talk about the president's childhood, his grandmother's struggles in a male-dominated career and explain that when she married, the couple's college loans combined were more than their mortgage.
We can expect to hear lines like this one that she uttered at a recent campaign stop:
"Your president is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills. He's the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at a bank."
Meanwhile, Ann Romney has been a constant presence at her husband's side during the course of the GOP primary and is expected to have a prominent role in the general election campaign. During her prime-time speech at the GOP convention last week, she made an overt pitch to women voters to "trust" her husband because he had been a good father and help-mate.
"It used to be that spouses were in the background, shielded from the public," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "Now, ironically, they are being brought to center stage to protect their husbands."
But having two spouses on the front lines of the 2012 battlefield is also a risk for both parties, one that both sides seem more than willing to take.
Democrats have, in fact, been taken aback by Ann Romney's venture into the mudslinging of the campaign -- instead of floating above the fray. She has given endless TV interviews -- some of them a bit testy -- and seems quite comfortable attacking the president. Most recently, Romney said "it's time for the grown-up" to take over the country, blamed the Obama campaign for her husband's low standing among Hispanics and boasted that Mitt Romney was going to save the country.
"Michelle Obama could never get away with saying those things," said a Democratic operative who has worked with spouses in presidential campaigns. "There would be an uproar."
In 2008, Michelle Obama learned that the hard way when her candor landed her in hot water and drove down her approval ratings. She was mocked for talking about her husband's dirty socks and pilloried by Republicans for saying: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." The right portrayed her as opinionated and angry, and the conservative National Review dubbed her: "Mrs. Grievance."
Consequently, the first lady has been a lot more cautious since those tumultuous early days.
She declared herself "mom in chief," and over the past three years has developed into a role model and icon, advocating for healthy living and helping military families and inner-city youth. She has worked out with contestants on "The Biggest Loser," and appeared on sitcoms.
But expectations were high for the first lady, and some advocacy groups say privately that this Harvard-educated lawyer is selling herself and the country short by not being vocal on controversial issues like gay rights and abortion.
Still, Michelle Obama's popularity is in the stratosphere -- particularly among the base and grass-roots supporters. Convention Chief Executive Officer Stephen Kerrigan credits her for involving the local community at the convention -- with events like the Carolina festival, which he says is unique.
Democratic convention organizers and campaign officials are hopeful the first lady can make a case for giving her husband four more years to finish what he started -- in the same way Laura Bush did for her husband in 2004. "We are looking at two starkly different visions for the country and she will share her husband's vision for moving forward," says Valerie Jarrett, a White House official and longtime family friend.
"She's the embodiment of the American dream that they want for everyone," adds Jarrett.
What she won't do, sources say, is make the same kind of overt appeal to women that Ann Romney did with her "I love women" squeal in Tampa.
"Mrs. Obama reflects a highly educated professional partnership with her husband that naturally appeals to modern women," Mandel says. "Mrs. Romney's message was a message that seemed to reflect an old-fashioned domestic bliss time of white picket fences. ... I would be surprised if her speech appealed to women who are swing voters, working women, single heads of households."
Michelle Obama is quite active this week in Charlotte. She will meet with African-American and Hispanic caucuses and speak at the Human Rights Campaign/Victory Fund luncheon honoring LGBT elected officials. On Thursday, she and Jill Biden will help assemble USO care packages with delegates for military personnel overseas.
Coming out of the convention, Obama will continue to be deployed to raise money and rally the base in swing states. She has also been advocating her latest campaigns initiative -- "It Takes One" -- to register voters.
"Michelle didn't ask to be a public figure but she has found a comfortable space for herself, and she's invaluable,' says Axelrod. "And every time she is out there, it's a good day for us."
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