Against the backdrop of majestic Red Rock Canyon, Michelle Obama swept into Nevada Tuesday on a gust of wind, giving U.S. Sen. Harry Reid a powerful political lift in his tough re-election bid.
"You see that? Right on cue," Reid said as a blast of desert sand swirled onto the stage while he was introducing the first lady, in town to promote her national effort to fight childhood obesity.
Although Obama's visit was billed as an official event and not part of Reid's campaign, she made it clear in appearances in Las Vegas and Reno that President Barack Obama sees the Senate majority leader as a key member of his team and vital to passing the Democratic Party's agenda.
"He's just been a tremendous asset, not just to my husband but to the country and to all of you kids," Obama said, pointing to 18 Las Vegas schoolchildren who got to meet the first lady and do outdoor exercises with her and Reid. "Everybody hears about what the president does, but presidents can't do anything if they don't have a good team. And Sen. Reid is a member of that good team."
Her comments won healthy applause from the invited guests, who included more than 100 parents, teachers, government workers, outdoor lovers and Democratic Party faithful. Michelle Obama also praised Rep. Dina Titus, a freshman Democrat in a tight re-election fight who spoke at the event, as a good team player, too.
In Reno Tuesday morning, Obama called Reid "one of my favorite people in the world," telling a women's summit attended by about 1,600 that he has been a leader on such things as equal pay for equal work and protecting women from domestic violence.
"Over the years, he has been a tireless advocate on behalf of women," the first lady said.
The two events in Northern and Southern Nevada appealed to the kinds of voters Reid needs to win in November: women and people concerned about health care and the environment. Red Rock is one of his signature accomplishments, having helped pass legislation to expand and give added protection to the conservation area that covers some 200,000 acres.
Reid faces meager opposition in the June 8 Democratic primary, but he's expected to have a difficult time winning a fifth term against the eventual Republican nominee -- no matter who emerges from the rough-and-tumble GOP contest that has damaged the two leading candidates.
Reid refused Tuesday to talk about his potential Republican foe, although his campaign has made it clear in its constant attacks against Sue Lowden that it doesn't want the former Nevada GOP chairwoman to emerge the victor over Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. The two former Nevada legislators are running neck and neck in most polls, with Danny Tarkanian in third.
"I have no idea who will be my opponent," Reid said in Reno. "I don't vote in the Republican primary so I don't study it very much."
Asked if he's worried about surveys that show him trailing and tied with some of the GOP hopefuls, Reid noted that the Nov. 2 general election is a long time away and he can recover.
"We'll have to work hard. There's five months to go," he said. "I'm not one that is very boastful. I'm just going to continue doing the best I can. The people of Nevada know me pretty well."
Nevada voters know Reid, but they don't like him much these days, according to polls that show he isn't popular at home. In a late May survey commissioned by the Review-Journal, 49 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable view of Reid compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view.
In contrast, Michelle Obama enjoys a 70 percent approval rating, about 20 points higher than that of her husband, who like Reid has been criticized for passing the health care overhaul that critics call a government takeover and proponents say will save Americans money in the long run.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said Obama's visit will boost Reid in many Nevadans' eyes, partly because of her popularity and the good press she wins.
"He gets to highlight his record on women, and it feeds into a broader health care message from Sen. Reid," Duffy said, adding that the Red Rock stop underlines his pro-environment credentials, too. "And he's showing his influence in his ability to get the first lady to come to Nevada. She doesn't travel a lot."
President Obama visited Las Vegas in February, giving Reid a boost, and it's likely the first couple will return to Nevada -- for official or campaign events --Â during the general election campaign.
At Red Rock, Reid defended the new health care law and noted its preventive care provisions.
"We must do something to stop disease and illness before it starts," Reid said. "Prevention hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, but prevention is the key to bringing down health care costs."
The first lady's program to fight childhood obesity, Reid said, is a good example, and the message she's trying to send is for Americans to get more exercise and eat better.
"Kids and adults -- get outside and move around," Reid said. "It's about our health."
During her visit to Red Rock, Obama launched a program called "Let's Move! Outside," which focuses on getting children to use the nation's recreational areas and parks more.
"We're here because we want every child in this country to have opportunities like this, to get outdoors and to get fit and to lead active lives," the first lady said during a 10-minute speech.
When Michelle Obama was growing up, she said her parents made her go outside and play after school: "They kicked us outside. In fact, they told us not to come back inside" until dinner, she said.
Now, children spend too much time in front of the TV and computer, playing video games, she said. Experts suggest at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but only 17 percent of high school students meet that requirement and nearly one in three children is overweight or obese, she said.
"We really need to get moving," Obama said, daring the children to join her for some fun.
"You guys ready?" she asked, eyeing the 18 kids squirming in their seats and waiting to leave the visitor center for some playtime in the canyon. "You ready to scramble up a rock?"
Obama wasn't quite dressed for a rock-climbing excursion, however. She wore flats and a dress with a bright, lemon-yellow skirt above the knees and a flowered top.
Nonetheless, she and Reid joined the children, who were dressed in "Let's Move" T-shirts and sporting lime green visors, for some stretching exercises in Sandstone Quarry.
Standing side by side, the first lady and Reid puts their hands together as if in prayer and did a "mountain pose" with the children standing around them in a half circle and stretching, too.
"Sen. Reid almost knocked me over," Obama joked after she and Reid faced one another and pressed their hands together in a "mountain range" pose with their hands as its peak.
When the children were told to crouch and act like a boulder, the first lady objected.
"I'm not doing that!" she said, suggesting her dress wouldn't provide modest enough cover.
After stretching, the children scrambled up some rocks while the first lady and Reid stayed at the bottom of the short climb, helping boost some of the children up for their first step.
"Don't do anything you feel uncomfortable with," Reid said, offering a bit of grandfatherly advice.
One child objected to getting a boost from Michelle Obama, who threw up her hands and laughed.
"I don't need help," the first lady said, turning to her aides and repeating what the child had said.
She let the child scramble up the rock without an assist as Reid, hands on hips, watched the first lady lend the other children who followed a helping hand.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.