CHARLOTTE, N.C. - First lady Michelle Obama set out to do for Democrats Tuesday exactly what Republicans wanted Ann Romney to do: humanize her husband, making him more appealing and accessible to voters whose connection has wavered.
Without ever directly attacking, Obama built an attack on Romney that called on simple details -- rusted cars, student loans, a grandmother passed over for a promotion -- that drew an implicit contrast with the privileged upbringing of the Republican nominee that Ann Romney could only gloss over last week in Tampa.
Obama said it was that life experience that made her husband appreciate the struggles of working Americans, and makes him the candidate to elect to keep working for them come November.
It was a surprisingly biographical speech about a man who's already been president nearly four years, but his wife's job was to make an emotional connection between Obama and voters that Barack Obama himself has struggled to create. She tried to argue that Obama's rather unusual upbringing -- with stops that included Hawaii and Indonesia -- was really no different from hers. "When Barack started telling me about his family - that's when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine."
And she aimed to give a resounding "Yes" to one of the biggest questions hanging over Obama -- whether he "gets" the economic struggles Americans are facing.
"I've gotten to see up close and personal what being president really looks like," she said. "At the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are."
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said on ABC that the first lady " filled in many of the blanks that Democrats have been longing to hear what this president has been fighting for."
With "we love Michelle" signs waving during applause lines, Obama mixed personal stories with a broader discussion of what her husband believes in, with some oblique jabs at Mitt Romney.
"We learned about honesty and integrity - that the truth matters, that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules," she said. "And success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square." Without being explicit about her husband's argument that a background in business doesn't translate into having the skills to be president, Obama said she watches her husband make decisions on "problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer."
Listening to his values, she said, he has made the right decisions - whether on preventing the economy from diving into a depression, advocating for health care reform, or wanting to do all he can to help the ordinary Americans he encounters across the country.
The president "get[s] all kinds of advice from all kinds of people," Obama said, but he has at times bucked the advice of his top political aides in favor of following his own sense of what's right.
Most notably, the first lady said Obama did it in working to pass his health care law -- something she pushed for even as some of the president's top political hands urged him to stay away.
"When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president," she said, airing a level of frustration with her husband's political advisers that she's rarely shown when in the public spotlight. "He didn't care whether it was the easy thing to do politically - that's not how he was raised - he cared that it was the right thing to do."
The first lady has several roles on the campaign trail this fall, including appealing to the Democratic grassroots and to middle class Americans unsure of whether the president's values truly align with their own.
Mixing her own story of parents who fought for the best for their children with her husband's more exotic - but just as tough, if not tougher -- biography, she stressed that the president is someone advocating for the middle class.
"Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable -- their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves," she said, telling the same stories she often includes in her stump speech, about her father's struggles with multiple sclerosis and her husband's grandmother's experience hitting a glass ceiling in her bank career.
Ann Romney, by contrast, recounted "very special days" when her husband was a student, and they lived in a basement apartment, eating pasta and tuna fish. But she didn't have stories of economic struggles to tell as she tried to assure voters of her husband's values. Instead, she focused on their love, and his romancing of her.
Republicans complimented the speech, but took issue with the substance.
Karl Rove said on Fox News that the speech was "very well delivered," though it was "sort of jarring" to hear her list her husband's policy achievements.
Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer didn't criticize Obama but did take a jab at her audience, saying on CNN that "some speeches are much more effective in a hall of zealots."
The first lady spoke briefly of first getting to know the man who would become her husband, but focused more on the bigger picture. The highest-profile woman campaigning for her husband, Obama worked Tuesday to pull even more women voters into the Obama camp.
She pointed to some of the president's strongest signs of support for women-specific issues: that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act soon after taking office and that "he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care."
She also offered an appeal "not just as first lady and not just as a wife," but as "mom-in-chief," which is still "my most important title."
"My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world," she said, getting teary-eyed. Though she worried about her daughters' well being before getting into the White House, she no longer has those concerns because her husband is working to make the future better for all daughters and sons, the first lady said in a rousing finale.
"I know from experience that if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all of our sons and daughters; and if we want to give all our children a foundation for their dreams and opportunities worthy of their promise; if we want to give them that sense of limitless possibility - that belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you're willing to work for it, then we must work like never before," she said, applause building in the hall as she spoke.
"And we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great country forward my husband, our president, President Barack Obama," the crowd breaking out into roaring cheers.
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