Political Eye: First lady getting personal with state

She called at 5 p.m. to chat at the end of the work day, “just to say hi.”

After half an hour of talking about everything from schools to Americans working hard to put food on the table and pay the mortgage, the busy mother of two girls said she had to run.

“I’ve got to juggle back upstairs to little people who are doing homework,” she said.

The little people are Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, the daughters of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, who’s campaigning to keep her husband in the White House for a second term.

From her home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in Washington, D.C. – three hours ahead of Las Vegas – the first lady Thursday called “house parties” across Nevada to remind Obama’s supporters that he needs their help more than ever in the 2012 campaign.

This year’s election will be much closer than in 2008, she said, especially in the battleground state of Nevada, where GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Obama are running neck and neck.

“Between now and November, believe me, Barack needs you,” the first lady said. “We all know what we need to do. We can’t turn back now. … Sign up, show up and get to work.”

The call from Obama came a month after she visited Las Vegas on May 1 to campaign for her husband, using her high popularity to boost the Democratic effort to keep the White House.

And it came a week before Obama plans his 10th stop in Nevada since he became president in 2009. He’s making an official visit Thursday to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

■ ■ ■

The personal touch and lots of attention can make a difference in a close election.

“You know we’re all in this together,” the first lady told supporters, re-enforcing the message.

That seemed to be the feeling among more than a dozen supporters at one “house party” held at the Drive Friendly school on South Buffalo Drive in a strip mall. Posters with traffic signs lined the walls amid warnings to “Buckle Up!” A driving simulator sat on one side of the room.

The volunteers used half a dozen smartphones in the middle of long tables to receive the first lady’s call. They gathered close, leaning in to hear her voice through small, scratchy speakers.

“They’re personal people,” Yolanda Carroll, host of the house party, said of the Obamas.

She wore a T-shirt that summed up the atmosphere among volunteers, who said they see themselves as part of a close-knit community rather than a political campaign.

“We are family, Obama, you and me,” read the T-shirt, which showed a picture of the first family.

Dek Gibson feels so strongly about the campaign that he produced his own line of Obama T-shirts. He’s selling them for $20 to $25 with the proceeds going to the 2012 re-election campaign. He also wrote a song, “Obama in the House,” in honor of the United States’ first black president.

Gibson said he grew up in the ’60s as part of a strong Democratic family in Ohio. And he took part as a teenager in the Selma, Ala., marches as blacks fought segregation and sought equal rights.

“I don’t defend the president, I defend the cause,” Gibson said.

After the call, Yvette Williams, who has campaigned for Obama since 2007, invited volunteers to a Sunday barbecue at her house, saying, “We’re just doing hot dogs, so don’t expect ribs.”

“Come out and join us. Come out and join your Obama family,” Williams said.

The first lady asked supporters to talk as much as possible to their neighbors about Obama and tell them the president has cut taxes for the middle class, restored lost jobs, reformed health care, protected seniors, saved the U.S. auto industry and has followed through on ending the war in Iraq.

“Barack has kept his promises on so many issues,” she said. “Remind people we made a lot of progress. It’s up to us to make sure he can continue this work. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

Toni Sathiyaseelan , a stay-at-home mom, said she could relate to the Obamas. She has two daughters as well, ages 15 and 12, and worked to help elect him in 2008.

“I feel like if we don’t win the election, we’re going to lose our voices,” she said.

Up in Reno, Lynette Ratzlaff, a neighborhood team leader for the Obama campaign, got to introduce the first lady for the statewide parties. She called her a “superhero.”

Ratzlaff said she used the term because she admires Michelle Obama for her work, especially promoting fitness to battle obesity and even growing vegetables in the White House garden.

“I relate to her, that’s why she’s my superhero,” Ratzlaff said. “She still hasn’t forgotten her roots.”

■ ■ ■

While Michelle Obama campaigns for her husband – who is sometimes described as cool and removed compared to her warmth – the Romney campaign is starting to send Ann Romney on the trail more often, too, to soften his stiff image and offer a more personal touch.

Romney was in Las Vegas on Tuesday on the day he won enough delegates to capture the GOP nomination. He was all business, talking jobs and raising money without his wife by his side.

Ann Romney has been to Nevada four times in the past year, mostly to appear with her husband at crucial moments.

She was in the Silver State as he campaigned in the days before his Feb. 4 victory in the GOP presidential caucus here. And she accompanied him last fall for the only presidential debate in Las Vegas. She met separately with Republican women over tea as well.

In the spring, the Romney campaign released a video called “A Love Story,” in which Ann Romney talks about their marriage of more than four decades and the couple’s five sons.

The Romneys have 18 grandchildren, and the campaign has been releasing private photos of the big family of late.

“If you really want to know how a person operates, look at how they live their lives,” Ann Romney says in the video, which shows years of family photos as the boys grow and grandchildren arrive.

With the general election under way, Ann Romney plans to travel more on her own, including likely visiting the battleground state of Nevada, the campaign said.

While Mitt Romney argues Obama hasn’t done enough to lift the weak economy, Ann Romney speaks on more personal terms with voters.

The female vote is viewed as in play with Democrats having an edge.

Ann Romney is reaching out to women who, like her, survived breast cancer. And her ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis has given her a personal difficulty to share with other Americans suffering health problems.

“She understands what it’s like to be in that doctor’s office,” a campaign staffer said. “She was a stay-at-home mom with five boys. She’s very down to earth. She’s a wonderful extension of who he is as a man, as a father and as a wonderful leader. I think she brings the human side of him to the table.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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