Speaking to a crowd of feisty supporters, Michelle Obama made a forceful argument Tuesday for President Barack Obama's move to let children of illegal immigrants stay in the United States to work and study.
The first lady said Obama wants to do even more to let those same immigrants gain U.S. citizenship one day by pressing Congress to pass the stalled Dream Act - a pitch that has energized the Latino voters he needs to win the White House again this November.
"Barack has been fighting for the DREAM Act," she said, speaking to a rally of 1,000 supporters sweating inside a humid Henderson Convention Center. "He's doing this because he believes that it is time to stop denying citizenship to responsible young people just because they're children of undocumented immigrants."
The first lady's third visit to Southern Nevada this year was aimed at pushing the Democratic faithful in this battleground state to work hard to register more voters to support the president and to talk up his policies, including on health care and home foreclosure programs.
Her stop came on the same day the nation's most politically powerful service-industry union launched an $85 million campaign to re-elect Obama, which includes targeting Hispanics in Nevada.
The Service Employees International Union said it would focus its efforts on the Silver State and seven other battleground states that probably will decide the White House election in 2012.
The SEIU already has $4 million worth of ads aimed at Hispanics in Nevada, Colorado and Florida, where the large Latino populations could make the difference. Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008 nationwide and more here. The ads slam GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney for not backing immigration reform, a key issue in the three swing states.
The first lady told the rally in Henderson her husband needs support more than ever because Romney won't be easy to beat, although she didn't mention him by name. She said the election would be closer than four years ago.
"He needs your help," the first lady said repeatedly of Obama.
"We got you! We got you!" one woman from the crowd shouted back.
The room was packed with backers such as Milton and Emma Sutton, a retired couple from Las Vegas who moved here from Ohio.
"I campaigned for him last time, and I'll do it again," said Emma Sutton, a retired teacher who said Republicans are trying to kill the unions. "I think he'll win because people realize he's for the middle class."
Obama has his work cut out for him among voters who aren't as loyal, however, and instead are focused on paying bills and keeping their businesses afloat.
In Henderson, which is evenly divided by political party, closed store fronts with for rent and lease signs scar the old downtown by the convention center where she spoke for 26 minutes.
At the Islander's Grill, owner Keola Hunter said he opened the business in February, replacing a Mexican place. Around the dinner rush hour, only two couples sat in the near-empty eatery, which has a 10-foot surfboard up on the wall as part of its Hawaiian theme.
Asked whether he is an Obama supporter, Hunter said, "I heard he's from Hawaii, but I don't vote. When you own a business, it's your whole life."
In her remarks, the first lady said she and Obama both know what it's like to come from working-class roots and live paycheck to paycheck.
"He understands what it means when a family struggles," she told the rally-goers. "That's not new to him."
On immigration, the first lady made the same case Obama did last week when he ordered the Department of Homeland Security not to deport an estimated 800,000 young immigrants who grew up here after their parents brought them to the United States illegally.
"They came here as children and were raised as Americans," the first lady said to loud cheers. "While this is an important step, it is not a permanent solution. It is not. So Barack is going to keep fighting to give these children a real path to citizenship."
Republican critics accused the president of going around Congress to drive more Hispanics to the polls to ensure his re-election in November.
Romney said it wouldn't solve the long-term problem of how to handle those children who have settled in America and are undocumented. Previously, Romney said he opposed the DREAM Act, but he has signaled he is open to GOP ideas to allow the young illegal immigrants to stay in the United States without the promise of U.S. citizenship.
Tuesday afternoon's visit of a few hours was the first lady's second campaign swing through Southern Nevada since she raised money and rallied supporters in Las Vegas on May 1. She also visited the Strip a third time while on a spring break vacation with her two daughters.
President Obama has visited the Silver State 10 times since he was elected and now is battling Romney for Nevada come Nov. 6.
On her way to Henderson, Michelle Obama stopped for 10 minutes at Sunrise Coffee in Las Vegas. She ordered passion fruit ice tea, raspberry flavor, then chatted and posed for pictures with four customers. Wearing a white dress, she joked about the 100-plus degree heat with cashier and manager, Ria Farmer. She left a $9.20 tip for her two small drinks.
"I didn't know she was in town or why she would come here," said Farmer, 19, who didn't know the first lady was coming until about 15 minutes before her arrival. "She was very nice. I like her."
Darren Littell, spokesman for the Republican National Committee's Team Nevada office, said the Obamas were spending so much time in the state because the president's policies have hurt its economy. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 11.6 percent and the worst housing foreclosure crisis.
"It's clear the Obama campaign knows the president's policies haven't helped Nevadans, which is why they sent Michelle Obama to campaign here today," Littell said. "Barack Obama simply hasn't lived up to the promise of his 2008 campaign, a fact 160,000 unemployed Nevadans who are looking for work feel every day. No amount of campaigning will change that."
Romney's son, Josh, did a round of interviews Tuesday with conservative radio talk show hosts in Nevada to counter the first lady's message. He touted his father's business experience, running Bain Capital, and said the president is "flailing around" on the economy.
"My dad's a guy who knows the economy better than anyone else," Josh Romney told Alan Stock of KDWN-AM in Las Vegas. "President Obama's never had any experience in running a business at all."
The SEIU helped Obama win Nevada four years ago by sending 100,000 of its union members and volunteers door to door to get out the vote. This year, union leaders said the ground game would be expanded beyond reaching out to loyal union households to woo general voters as well.
"Boots on the ground are the way that you move the electorate and the way you engage the electorate," said Brandon Davis, the union's national political director.
Four years ago, the SEIU spent $85 million nationwide on its White House campaign. Davis said he expected about the same amount to be spent this year, but only in eight states: Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, Davis said 750 full-time union members would lead 100,000 volunteers in the eight battleground states with the goal of knocking on eight million doors.
The Romney campaign criticized unions, including the influential AFL-CIO, for backing Obama policies that would expand government spending and raise taxes despite record deficits and debt.
"President Obama and his union cronies think the only way to revive the economy is to double down on the liberal policies that have failed to put Americans back to work: tax hikes and reckless government spending," said Mason Harrison, spokesman for Romney in Nevada. "Americans understand this country needs a new direction and one that doesn't involve kowtowing to liberal special interests."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.