By Nia -Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 9:34 PM
In her first campaign swing for the November elections, first lady Michelle Obama made the political personal, harking back to her days growing up in Chicago, recalling the electricity of the 2008 presidential campaign and telling an audience of Democratic donors that her understanding of the issues of the day comes down to her role as a mother.
"You see, more than anything else, I come at this stuff, more, as a mom," she said Wednesday in Wisconsin. "When I think about the issues facing our nation, I think about what it means. And I think about what it means for the world we're leaving for them and for all our children.As I travel around this country, and look into the eyes of every single child I meet, I see clearly what's at stake."
Her remarks marked her first full foray into the midterm campaign and came in a state where Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is battling Republican Ron Johnson to keep his seat. While Feingold is ahead in fundraising, his popularity has lagged in most polls.
Held at the U.S. Cellular center in downtown Milwaukee, the event attracted about 500 people who paid $250 to $500 for a ticket.
In her speech, which ran about 20 minutes, Obama took a page from her address two years ago at the Democratic National Convention, mentioning her family and the president's remarks that "we all want to leave something better for our kids."
"I know that was true in my family growing up. That's why even after my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he hardly ever missed a day of work. . . . My dad kept getting up . . . because he wanted something better for me and my brother," she said. "And it was also true in Barack's family.That's why Barack's grandmother woke up before dawn each morning to catch the bus to her job at a bank. And even when she was passed over for promotions year after year because she was a woman, she rarely complained . . . because she wanted something more for Barack and his sister."
The first lady repeatedly used her husband's first name in her speech, in an attempt to humanize him for the audience. And she and the president have often used personal experience to make a political point. President Obama used an anecdote about his mother's death from cancer when calling for health insurance legislation. The first lady has referred to her daughters when discussing her anti-childhood-obesity campaign, and she recalled her youth when she spoke before the International Olympic Committee last year in pushing to bring the 2016 Games to her home town.
She described Feingold, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, as someone who has "stood up for health insurance reform" and campaign finance reform. "And he's fought to create jobs and cut taxes for working folks."
But she was also careful to cast Feingold, who has been linked to Obama administration policies, as an independent voice.
"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."
Feingold, who was greeted with cheers of "Russ, Russ, Russ" when he took the stage, urged a similar enthusiasm at the polls.
"We have the momentum," he said. "We are moving in the right direction."
He said that voters shouldn't believe out-of-state polls that show him trailing his challenger, although he admitted that even his own polls showed that he lagged behind Johnson, a businessman.
"As of this moment, I am no longer behind," Feingold said. "I am no longer behind. I can tell you, that as of this moment, I am actually beating Ron Johnson with the voters that are most likely to vote."
Democrats are intent on getting out "surge voters," the 15 million young and new voters who powered Obama to the White House, and making them a more permanent part of their base.
The first lady has consistently reached out to those voters and key Democratic constituencies, including African Americans. This week, she gave interviews on black radio shows, telling host Tom Joyner on his nationally syndicated radio show Wednesday morning that "it takes a village to change a country.
"A lot of people don't pay attention to the midterms because they think, 'Well, when a president is elected, that's what an election is all about,' " she told the radio audience. "But this is critical because Congress shapes the laws, and the president can only sign the bills that come across his desk that are passed by Congress. And this is the time when we're electing folks to office that are either going to work with the president or they're going to work against him."
She made a similar plea in her remarks in Milwaukee, saying that people have "got to vote all the time, every time."
Last week, Obama held a conference call with 20,000 supporters of Organizing for America, the grass-roots arm of the Democratic National Committee. Over the coming weeks, she will make similar calls targeting women and young people, aides said.
And later Wednesday, she headed to Chicago to help raise money for U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, U.S. House candidate Dan Seals and Reps. Debbie Halvorson and Bill Foster. As she stumped for Giannoulias before a crowd of about 200 donors, she said that she would be voting in the general election on Thursday; Illinois has early voting.
She added, "I am thrilled to be back home in my home town, Chicago. I get to sleep in my own bed tonight."
The first lady has 10 additional campaign events on her schedule, and aides said more stops could be added. On Thursday, she heads to Denver for a fundraising luncheon for U.S. Senate candidate Michael Bennet, and she has events planned for Sens. Patty Murray in Washington state and Barbara Boxer in California.
Women are an especially important voting bloc, and the first lady mentioned several of her husband's legislative accomplishments that will likely appeal to women, including the nomination of two female Supreme Court justices and the passage of the fair-pay act.
She also touted the health-care overhaul law, and Feingold said that he was "honored" to have voted for the bill.
The first lady's remarks were punctuated several times with applause, as she recalled the spirit of the 2008 campaign.
"We were excited. We were energized. We were hopeful, because we knew we had a chance to change the country we love for the better," she said. "And the truth is, we have that same chance - and we have that same responsibility - today. The chance to continue the progress we've made, the chance to finish what we've started."
Polls show that Michelle Obama is one of the most popular Democrats in the country.
"If you're still as fired up and ready to go as you were two years ago . . . then I know that we can keep this movement going," she said. "I know we can keep that American Dream alive."
And with that, and a standing ovation, she embraced Feingold and walked off the stage to cheers, camera flashes and Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."