PHILADELPHIA — Anthony Paradiso had attended his last political event nearly a half century ago. But there he was, in line three hours early for a glimpse of Michelle Obama.
“She’s a motivator,” said Paradiso, who went to the rally just two days after he’d been discharged from a hospital after surgery. His last event: a Hubert Humphrey rally in 1968.
It’s that kind of appeal that President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign loves, hoping the popular political spouse can rekindle some of the 2008 spark among Democrats and independents for a contest that’s looking more difficult by the day.
“This journey is going to be long and it is going to be hard,” the first lady said, delivering a feisty stump speech to more than 1,000 supporters and campaign volunteers who were jammed into the National Constitution Center. “But just remember, that’s how change always happens in this country. And if we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight, then eventually we get there.”
Obama has been politically active on her husband’s behalf for more than a year, raising money at nearly 60 fundraisers and conducting conference calls with key groups of supporters, including women and African-Americans. She’s also a pop culture phenom, making a guest appearance on the Nickelodeon TV show "iCarly" to thank military families for their service and engaging in a tug-of-war with comedian Jimmy Fallon to promote her “Let’s Move” initiative.
But as the campaign heats up, she’ll be deployed to headline more large rallies like the ones last week in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Next to the president himself, and maybe including the president, she’s our most in-demand surrogate,” campaign adviser David Axelrod said. “She is both tremendously popular and very effective on the stump, because she speaks in a heartfelt way about (the president), and what motivates him, the things that he’s done and the things that he wants to do.”
The campaign will have to compete with her "No. 1 priority" – the couple’s two daughters – but as much time as she will give, Axelrod said, the campaign will want her out there.
Polls consistently find Michelle Obama at or near the top of the list of the most popular political figures in the country. She outscores her husband by double digits: Her favorability rating was 63 percent in an April poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, while President Barack Obama was at 50 percent.
“We believe in him, but her support really seals it,” said Gloria Pelzer, a retired Bucks County schoolteacher who volunteered for Obama in 2008 and plans to sign up again. “She’s a dynamo.”
First ladies are often more popular than their husbands, perhaps because of the non-combative nature of the position.
Laura Bush campaigned for congressional candidates across the country for former President George W. Bush in 2006, a time when his popularity was flagging. First lady Hillary Clinton campaigned extensively in 1998, preferred by fellow Democrats at a time when her husband faced impeachment.
Political strategists note that a popular spouse often can humanize a candidate, an important factor for President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, both of whom can appear aloof.
Michelle Obama – who dispenses giant bear hugs with aplomb and has stood for hours surprising tourists at the White House with the first dog, Bo, by her side – appears anything but reserved. She dishes family tales at events, telling supporters in Virginia about her humble roots growing up in a “little bitty apartment” on Chicago’s South Side, and how her mother hasn’t changed a thing.
“My room is the same,” she said to laughter. “Same bed sheets, same pictures.”
She boasts of her husband’s accomplishments, ticking off passage of the health care law, reversal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays, the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court and his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq.
And she vouches for his character, referring to him repeatedly as Barack and introducing him to the audience as a doting father, as well as the son of a single mother: “I have to admit I’m a little biased about our president.”
She never mentions Romney by name or uses the word Republican as she implores volunteers to get working.
“Multiply yourselves!” she exhorted the crowd in Virginia last week. “Reach out to your friends, and your neighbors, and your colleagues, and your congregation members, and your social club members, and the other ladies you have tea with, and the people you walk with in the morning, and the yoga people, and the people in the grocery store line. Convince them to join you in giving just a little part of their lives each week to this campaign.”
The White House controls the first lady’s image carefully, focusing on her role as a mother, friend of military families and advocate of nutrition and fitness: Her basketball-playing husband recently joked that she can outdo him in pushups.
Through campaign appearances and a TV and radio publicity blitz around a new book on the White House garden, she stays tightly on message, something other Obama campaign surrogates haven’t managed to achieve.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and former President Bill Clinton were forced in recent weeks to step back from remarks that appeared to question the campaign’s strategy of criticizing Romney’s business record. The first lady faced a similar dustup in 2008, when critics used her remark on the campaign trail that “for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country” to portray her as angry or unpatriotic.
This time, Michelle Obama stays clear of divisive politics. Her stump speeches are long on cheerleading and devoid of partisan attacks.
And although many of those waiting outside the hall in Philadelphia were familiar with her anti-obesity stand, including working with Walt Disney World to improve nutritional standards, she doesn’t bring up her role as first lady at political events.
She’s worked to tamp down politics in that official role: After she initially said nice things in an interview about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to ban big servings of sugary drinks, her office issued a statement that said she wasn’t taking a stand on the controversial effort.
When a Democratic strategist said that Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom, had never worked, the first lady weighed in on the kerfuffle, with a carefully crafted tweet that offered no offense: “Every mother works hard and every woman deserves to be respected.”
Republicans suggested that she’s pointedly taking the safe route.
“For a woman who has two Ivy League degrees to eschew any type of public policy voice suggests she’s being deployed mainly as a way to make him more relatable and accessible and to convince people that hope and change is alive and kicking,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster.
“There’s just not going to be any ‘Michellecare,’ “ Conway said in a reference to Hillary Clinton’s controversial work on health care. “Michelle has taken the political versions of mom, baseball and apple pie, and avoided controversy.”
Republicans say there’s a limit to the first lady’s influence, and political analysts say voters aren’t swayed by those who aren’t on the ticket.
Voters such as Carol Nashleanas say differently. A Philadelphia retiree, Nashleanas considers Obama “the most significant first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” for her work on childhood issues.
“She’s amazing,” Nashleanas said. “I’d vote for her.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lesleyclark