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First lady seeks to reignite flame for president

By Sarah Aarthun and Ashley Killough, CNN
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Wed September 5, 2012
  • Michelle Obama delivers personal touch at convention's first night
  • Barack Obama watches speech at home with daughters
  • The first lady has a high favorability rating in recent polls
  • Mrs. Obama says president reads letters at night from struggling Americans

Charlotte, North Carolina (CNN) -- As Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, she faced a similar task as Ann Romney of presenting her husband as a father and family man, above his public persona in the political spotlight.

"When people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago," Mrs. Obama said.

The first lady spoke on the convention's opening night, exactly one week after Ann Romney delivered what one CNN analyst called "political velvet," an address at the GOP convention in Tampa that took her sometimes robotic businessman husband, Mitt Romney, and turned him into a charismatic candidate who will be a champion of working-class Americans.

Michelle Obama has an easier job ahead of her in convincing voters of the president's likability; his favorability in this area ranks far above that of his GOP opponent. But she still worked to counter a perception that Obama is a cool and sometimes distant president who has been slow to build relationships outside the White House.

Photo: Obama watches first lady's speech on TV with daughters

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She also weighed in on what drives Obama's decision-making process, noting letters that he reads at night with "concern in his eyes" from struggling Americans.

"As president, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people. But 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," she said.

Both Obamas have talked openly about the importance of the family dinner and spending time with their two daughters, 11-year-old Sasha and 14-year-old Malia, outside of the demands of the White House.

Campaign officials said Michelle Obama's focus would be to help augment the campaign's strategy to use the convention as a way to show "what drives (the president) every day."

Opinion: Michelle Obama has redefined black women

A senior campaign official was more specific in the hours leading up to the speech. Describing the first lady as "the most popular political figure in America," the official said the aim was for her to highlight the president's personal experience and serve as a "character witness" for her husband.

She stuck to the planned themes.

"I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are -- it reveals who you are," Mrs. Obama said.

She further touched on her own story, growing up on the south side of Chicago, and shared stories about the values handed down by her parents.

"We learned about gratitude and humility, that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean, and we were taught to value everyone's contribution and treat everyone with respect," Mrs. Obama said.

Michelle Obama convention speech dress dazzles, scores

One thing Michelle Obama didn't do was go on the attack.

"The first lady has not attacked political opponents in any way over the past four years," the official said while speaking to CNN reporters covering the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lisa Burns, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University with a focus on media and first ladies, said she's not surprised by the positive tone of the speech.

"With the wives, they aren't there to provide the real red meat for the political junkies. There's enough of that from other speakers," Burns said. "Their job is to reach out to the undecided voters and people who are tuning into the campaign for the first time -- so they want to keep it positive."

Burns said it will take more than the first lady's speech to drum up the support necessary for her husband to win reelection.

"She can definitely make a difference tonight, but ultimately when people go to the voting booths, they're not voting for the wife," Burns said.

However, she faced a friendly audience on Tuesday.

What we learned from Day One of the convention

The first lady is known as a warm, open woman whose latest favorable numbers in a CNN/ORC International poll hit 65%. Obama campaign officials describe her as the "most popular political figure in America."

Just four years ago, she was being portrayed as an Afro-sporting, machine gun-toting, Angela Davis figure fist-bumping her husband in a cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker.

She's built her likeable reputation by tackling such issues as childhood obesity with her "Let's Move!" campaign, holding several high-profile events at the White House and appearing in public service announcements to encourage children and their parents to maintain an active lifestyle. She also started a vegetable garden on the grounds of the executive mansion.

Even her eye for fashion has gained admiration.

Mrs. Obama regularly opts to wear cardigans and skirts from such retail chains as J. Crew over high-end designers, putting her on similar shopping grounds as female middle-class voters.

Lines from speeches that killed

She wore a dress by New York designer Tracey Reese for her convention appearance.

The women's vote is especially key in this election, as Democrats work to paint Romney and the Republican Party as out of touch with female voters.

In a recent interview with Parade magazine, the first lady indicated she'd like to add women's health issues to her list of causes if her husband is elected to a second term.

Michelle Obama has stepped up in recent days to help fill the void left by her husband's busy campaign schedule, meeting with family members of the victims in the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, stumping for her husband on the campaign trail and calling for volunteers to rally voters in battleground states.

She continued that prominent surrogate role in a bid to set the tone for her husband's final push toward Election Day.

The president watched his wife's speech from the White House with the couple's daughters who had their first day of school on Tuesday -- a particularly significant day for eldest daughter Malia, who started high school.

Read about what the Democratic convention will highlight

CNN's Jessica Yellin, Brianna Keilar and Ashley Killough contributed to this report

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