MILWAUKEE — As polls show her among the most popular political figures in the land, Michelle Obama returned to the campaign trail Wednesday for the first time since her husband's successful 2008 bid for the presidency.
"Now to tell you the truth, this thing here, I don't do this very often," the first lady said to laughs as she opened a campaign swing to help embattled Democrats, starting with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who's fighting for a fourth term and is behind in the polls.
"In fact, I haven't really been on the trail since a little campaign you might remember a couple of years ago, this cute, tall, skinny guy," she said, reading from a teleprompter.
The White House hopes that Michelle Obama can help reignite some of the passion from that 2008 campaign in time to get more Democrats and left-leaning independents to vote in Senate races that the party is in very real danger of losing.
After speaking at a fund-raising lunch for Feingold, she headed to Illinois to help Alexi Giannnoulias, the Democrat running for the Senate seat once held by her husband. Next, she planned to travel to Colorado to campaign for incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. The first lady is scheduled to meet up with her husband Sunday in Ohio.
In Wisconsin, she lauded Feingold for supporting the health care overhaul signed into law by her husband, and also for sometimes disagreeing with the president. Feingold, a liberal with a maverick streak, relishes his role as an independent.
"When my husband was here in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, he talked about how independent and outspoken Russ is, and how Russ doesn't always agree with him," she said. "So Russ, that's something that you and I have in common."
"This is exactly what we need," Feingold said at the start of the lunch, which drew about 400 people who paid $250 to $500 each to attend.
"The race that I'm in remains close. We have the momentum. We are moving in the right direction."
Feingold trails Republican Ron Johnson by 7.3 percentage points, according to an averaging of recent polls by RealClearPolitics.com.
Polls consistently show Michelle Obama at or near the top of the list of most popular political figures in the country — more popular than her husband, and considerably more popular than any national Republican figure such as Sarah Palin.
A recent Bloomberg poll found Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the most personally popular political figure in the country, with 64 percent of likely 2010 voters saying they have a favorable impression of her. Michelle Obama was a close second, with 62 percent holding a favorable opinion and 25 percent with an unfavorable opinion.
Her popularity isn't surprising, given how she's shied away from partisan politics since moving into the White House to focus instead on such non-controversial issues as fighting child obesity or helping the families of military veterans.
"She is an invaluable asset to this White House," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Asked whether she might sacrifice some of her popularity by campaigning, Gibbs said that she'd stick to praising Democrats and avoid partisan criticism of Republicans.
"You'll see her make a very positive case for these candidates, not get involved in the back-and-forth of normal political campaigns," he said.
Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said her visit undercuts Feingold's claim to be an anti-Washington maverick.
"For a guy trying to run on his independence," Priebus said, "Russ Feingold sure is getting a lot of help from the Washington establishment."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010