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Michelle Obama urges Democrats: 'Work like never before'

‘Being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are,’ first lady says of her husband

By Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Newspapers

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CHARLOTTE First lady Michelle Obama headlined the opening Tuesday of the Democratic National Convention, an emotion-charged finale to an opening act designed to build enthusiasm among women and minorities whose votes are critical to re-electing her husband.

“We must work like never before,” she told the convention, urging them to help President Barack Obama defeat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

She asked supporters to rally to her husband’s side as they did in first helping him win the White House four years ago. “And we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great county forward, my husband, our president, President Barack Obama.”

In a largely personal tale, the first lady tried to connect her husband to working Americans, talking about his humble beginnings, his decision to forgo a high-paying career in favor of community work and public service, and about his life as a loving husband and father.

“That’s the man I see in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him,” she said. “I see the concern in his eyes … and 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.’ ”

She recounted her husband’s modest upbringing by a single mother and his grandparents, and their life as a young married couple who had student loan bills higher than their mortgage.

“Today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are,” she said in prepared remarks.

The first lady – lauded earlier by her brother, Craig Robinson, and her sister-in-law, Maya Soetoro-Ng – told the thousands at Time Warner Cable Arena that Obama had worked tirelessly to make the economy more stable, ease college students’ loans and improve health care.

“He 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 … you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed,” she said.

Castro recounts dream

A diverse parade of speakers included San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the first Latino keynote speaker in convention history, as well as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the first woman to reach the rank of Army three-star general, African-American members of Congress, and the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Together, they served as a not-so-subtle nod to the changing demographics of the nation.

“My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible,” Castro said in prepared remarks. “Ours is a nation like no other – a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. ”

The nearly 6,000 delegates from across the nation who poured into Charlotte made up a noticeably younger, more diverse crowd than the smaller group that met in Tampa last week for the Republican National Convention.

Women make up half the DNC delegates. Twenty-seven percent are African-American, while 13 percent are Hispanic.

“President Obama believes in the promise of America. President Obama believes in you. That’s the American dream – el sueño Americano,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of California. “Dr. King marched for it. Cesar Chavez organized for it. And this fall, we have to vote for it.”

Lisa Fricke, a retired teacher and convention delegate from Nebraska, said she has tried to convince members of the large Hispanic population of her town about the need to cast ballots.

“I don’t think they understand how important this vote is,” said Fricke, who wore a half-dozen buttons, including those that said: “Proud Nebraska Democrat” and “Educators for Obama.”

At times the convention had a party feel, with delegates dancing to the tunes of songwriter Ledisi and bursting into chants: “Four more years!” They cheered when former President Jimmy Carter spoke to them by video.

They listened to speeches from top officials with labor and abortion rights groups and Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“For me, politics is an extension of my role as a mother and a grandmother,” Pelosi said. “For the Democratic women of the House, our work is not about the next election, but rather the next generation.”

A tribute to Kennedy

Easily the most emotional moment of the night was when the audience watched a tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Kennedy died in August 2009 and gave a farewell speech at the 2008 convention. He reminded the crowd that overhauling the nation’s health care system was the cause of his life. He died before it passed.

This is the first convention in at least 56 years where one of the Kennedy brothers – President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy – were not prominent players.

But the crowd roared when excerpts of Edward Kennedy’s 1994 debate with Romney – then vying for Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat – were shown. Romney was a moderate then, supporting abortion rights, and Kennedy tore into him for changing his positions.

The video ended with Kennedy passing a generational torch to Obama. And the tribute ended with the crowd chanting, “Teddy, Teddy, Teddy.”

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