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Michelle Obama Makes Personal Appeal in Convention Speech

Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) -- First Lady Michelle Obama speaks about President Barack Obama's leadership. She addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Source: Bloomberg)

Michelle Obama used an opening-night convention speech to take Americans inside the White House, asking them for the patience to give her husband a second term and contrasting President Barack Obama’s life experience with Republican Mitt Romney’s.

“I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are -- no -- it reveals who you are,” the first lady said yesterday in her address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The crises of Obama’s first term “tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined,” she said. “He reminds me that we are playing a long game here and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once.”

Michelle Obama’s speech, without saying Romney’s name, drew subtle yet unmistakable contrasts to the Republican presidential nominee’s background as the son of an executive and politician and his business career in finance. Romney, former Massachusetts governor and a co-founder of Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, has a net worth that is estimated between $190 million and $250 million.

The first lady described seeing her husband in the White House “in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him” about their woes. “For Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it is about the difference you make in people’s lives,” she said.

Rusted-Out Car

She recalled how her husband used to pick her up for dates in a rusted-out car. She spoke of how her father kept working as a pump operator at a water plant after his multiple sclerosis diagnosis and how the president’s grandmother’s banking career was limited by a glass ceiling for women.

“They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did,” she said of their families. “In fact, they admired it.”

And today, her husband “believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity you do not slam it shut behind you. No. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

Rogan Kersh, Wake Forest University’s provost, said the first lady “faced an especially thorny task in her address: reintroduce herself and her husband, among the most widely- covered figures in America today. By striking a poignant note -- fearing that the presidency would change the man she married, but reaffirming in powerfully personal terms that he retains the qualities she fell for -- she fulfilled the task.”

Cover Image of Bloomberg Insider Conventions Magazine, Sept. 5 Edition Close

Cover Image of Bloomberg Insider Conventions Magazine, Sept. 5 Edition

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Cover Image of Bloomberg Insider Conventions Magazine, Sept. 5 Edition

Key Constituencies

Michelle Obama spent this morning working to energize Democratic constituencies, whose support will be critical in the coming election: blacks, Hispanics and gay voters.

In separate morning remarks to the black and Hispanic caucuses, and later at a luncheon honoring homosexual lawmakers and delegates, the first lady said hard work will be crucial to winning what’s expected to be a close election.

“We don’t have a single minute to waste,” she said at the reception organized by the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy group based in Washington. “We need you all out there every single day between now and November the 6th.”

She noted that the president won North Carolina by 14,000 voters, or five votes per precinct, and Florida by 230,000 votes -- or 36 votes per precinct. “You may finish lunch but after that I want you all to get out there and think about who your 36 votes are going to be,” she said.

Latino Appeal

Her convention night appearance came after that of Julian Castro, the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and the first Hispanic to keynote a party convention. He reinforced the first lady’s themes, describing his upbringing by his single mother and casting Romney as oblivious to most Americans’ financial limitations.

“We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others,” said Castro. “What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance. And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re promising us.”

Castro chided Romney for his advice this year to students to start businesses by borrowing money from their parents, saying Romney “has no idea how good he’s had it.”

Voter Appeals

Their appearances at Time Warner Cable Arena aimed to energize two crucial voting blocs -- women and Latinos -- with whom the president enjoys an advantage over Romney. Still, Obama is running behind with white voters, raising the importance of a strong turnout among non-whites in a tight race as they enter the last two months of the campaign. Obama was leading Romney 47 percent to 46 percent in Gallup’s daily tracking poll, covering Aug. 29-Sept. 3.

The first lady sought to underscore the personal stories behind the political and policy challenges Obama, 51, took on with her by his side, including dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and expanding health insurance coverage and college tuition assistance.

“I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, ’You won’t believe what these folks are going through, Michelle -- it’s not right. We’ve got to keep working to fix this. We’ve got so much more to do’,” she said.

Deeply Moved

Kennis Wilkins and his wife, Brenda, business owners from Williamston, North Carolina, had front-row seats for the first lady’s speech and said they were deeply moved by it.

“She just told the American story,” said Wilkins, 58. “We can all be one, we can become anything we want.”

Brenda Wilkins, 55, said Michelle Obama will be an important asset for her husband’s re-election.

“We need the women, and the women are behind the first lady,” she said.

Tobe Berkovitz, a communication professor at Boston University, called her speech “brilliant,” in terms of its themes and personal focus, and “totally political.”

“This speech will register with the voters until they return to thinking about their plight over the last four years,” he said.

The president, who campaigned earlier in the day in the battleground state of Virginia, watched his wife’s remarks from the White House. That contrasted with Romney’s decision to make a special trip to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last week, to join his wife, Ann Romney, on stage as she concluded her remarks emphasizing Romney’s commitment to his family and community.

Close Race

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released hours earlier showed Obama entering the convention with the highest unfavorable rating among registered voters of any incumbent going back to 1984, 49 percent unfavorable to 47 percent favorable. Romney had an unfavorable rating of 48 percent and a 43 percent favorable rating.

Heavy rain marked the opening day of the convention. Though not as serious as the hurricane threat that had hovered over Republicans’ convention last week in Tampa, the weather nevertheless is forcing the Obama campaign to consider whether to keep the president’s acceptance speech tomorrow at Bank of America Stadium, which has almost 74,000 seats, or move it indoors to the smaller arena.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Charlotte, North Carolina at mtalev@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Charlotte, North Carolina at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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