DURHAM — When First Lady Michelle Obama takes the podium, she is many things character witness for her husband, defender of the anemic economic recovery, and exhorter-in-chief for the Democratic faithful.
Which is why Michelle Obama has become one of the most traveled political spouses in recent memory. Her campaign stops Wednesday at N.C. Central University in Durham and East Carolina University in Greenville were part of her 11th visit to North Carolina since 2009, according to the campaign.
There is little mystery why.
While North Carolinians are very divided about the president and his nearly four-year tenure in office, there is much broader support for his wife. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh, found that she had a 55 percent favorable rating and a 37 percent unfavorable rating.
She is his most effective surrogate along with former President Clinton, pollster Tom Jensen said. She is very popular with independents. She can help (President Barack Obama) with women voters.
The Republican ticket also has begun using Ann Romney as a way to humanize GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Although she has made only two campaign visits to the state, the GOP ticket has begun using her in satellite interviews with Tar Heel TV stations.
Last week, Ann Romney gave interviews to WCNC in Charlotte and WFMY in Greensboro, and on Tuesday she gave an interview to NBC-17 in Raleigh.
Ann Romney is also well thought of, with a 53 percent favorable rating and a 29 percent unfavorable rating, according to Public Policy Polling.
In both cases, the wives are more popular than their husbands, Jensen said.
Michelle Obama is hardly the first political spouse to hit the hustings in North Carolina. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary here, Bill Clinton campaigned so extensively for his wife, Hillary, that the Obama campaign joked that former president seemed to be running for mayor of small-town North Carolina. Elizabeth Dole campaigned several times in her native Tar Heel state for her husband Bob Dole in 1996.
But except for the singular case of Bill Clinton, it seems unlikely that any presidential spouse has spent so much time in North Carolina. (President Obama has visited the state 12 times since 2009, according to the campaign, more times than his wife.)
One reason why Michelle Obama has spent so much time in the state is because she has adopted as one of her issues the improvement of care for military families a powerful issue in a state laden with military bases, said Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political science professor. It is an issue, Haynie said, that goes beyond narrow partisan political appeal.
She also has an ability to talk about her husband and about national issues, Haynie said, in a way that does not seem overtly political.
In her talk to 3,100 people Wednesday at NCCUs McClendon-McDougald Gymnasium, Michelle Obama did not once mention Mitt Romney.
Her criticisms are oblique. She tells the audience that the country must continue moving forward under the policies of the past three and half years.
We have to step back and ask ourselves, she said, are we going to turn around and go back to the same policies that got us into the hole in the first place?
Nooo, responds the audience.
Are we going to just sit back and watch everything weve worked for and fought for to just slip away? Obama asks.
Nooo, the audience responds again.
The first lady later spoke to 6,000 people at ECU.
Despite her overall popularity, views on Michelle Obama are mixed. A focus group held in August in Raleigh of Walmart moms found several people who felt the first lady spent too much money on vacations, or too much on clothing, or considered her push for better nutrition as intrusive.
But that was not the view Wednesday at the rally in Durham.
Her swing through North Carolina on Wednesday was designed to encourage get-out-the vote efforts. She noted that President Obama defeated John McCain by only 14,000 votes in 2008 in North Carolina, or by an average of five votes per precinct.
If we win enough precincts, we will win this state, Obama said. And if Barack wins North Carolina, we will be well on our way to putting Barack back in the White House for four more years. Think about that five votes.
Gail Jennings, 61, a retired TV production manager from Durham, was among those impressed that Michelle Obama has devoted herself to veterans issues. Jennings said she had a number of veterans in her family, and providing quality care for veterans was important to her.
I felt good that Laura Bush dealt with literacy, Jennings said. But I feel really good that Michelle Obama has taken up veterans issues.
Martina Blackwell, 28, an NCCU student from Burlington, said Michelle Obama is able to talk about womans issues and vouches for her husband.
When it comes to understanding the lives of women ladies right? Michelle Obama says, when it comes to standing up for our rights and our opportunities, we know that my husband will always have our backs.
There is also a matter of race.
Angelique Stallings, 37, an entrepreneur from Durham, said when she looks at Michelle Obama, she sees someone with whom she can connect: a professional woman, a mother, and an African-American.
I can see myself in her, Stallings said. Shes educated. Shes down-to-earth. I love it that when I look at her I see an African-American woman. And that has never happened before in the White House.
Researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this story