Three weeks before Election Day, first lady Michelle Obama sought to inject a sense of urgency into a crowd of college students Tuesday, telling them the presidential race “could all come down to what happens in a few key states like right here in North Carolina.”
She called the election a stark “choice about our values and our hopes and our aspirations,” and leveled criticism at Republican priorities.
“So for the next 21 days, we’re going to need you all to work like you’ve never worked before,” Obama said to loud applause from the 5,700 gathered in Carmichael Arena on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. “We have come so far. But we have so much more work to do. ... So get to work.”
The first lady’s message was particularly aimed at students whose energy and votes lifted President Barack Obama to a razor-thin victory in North Carolina in 2008.
But with young voters less enthusiastic this year, the first lady implored the crowd to take to the polls those friends who feel like their votes don’t matter. The 14,177-vote win in North Carolina four years ago, she said, means the president won each precinct by an average of five votes.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Obama said. “Just one person here today could swing an entire precinct for Barack Obama. And if we win enough precincts we will win this state.”
This is the first lady’s second trip in a month to North Carolina. She echoed a similar message to students in September at N.C. Central University, a historically black university in Durham.
Her appearance came hours before the second presidential debate and two days before in-person early voting in North Carolina begins Thursday. About 60,000 North Carolinians have returned absentee ballots, with registered Republicans boasting a two-to-one advantage.
Democrats expect to close the gap starting this week with a concerted effort on college campuses statewide to get young voters to the polls. Obama said she voted early Monday in Illinois bringing the campaign “one vote closer to winning.”
Marlena Moore, a senior from Morganton, said she is voting early. “It’s going to be close,” she said. “I think students are definitely going to be a force.”
Much of the first lady’s speech touted her husband’s record. She reminded the crowd that he “inherited an economy in rapid decline” but helped save the domestic auto industry and fought for universal health care, including the provision that allowed young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. She also touted his record creating jobs, ending the war in Iraq, repealing a ban on openly gay soldiers in the military and ordering the death of Osama bin Laden.
Republicans contend the president’s record is not as robust as she suggested. “President Obama doesn’t have a record to run on or a plan for the future so he has to resort to distracting voters from his abysmal failure to fix the economy,” said Robert Reid, a spokesman for the Romney campaign in North Carolina. “Mitt Romney has a pro-growth plan for our economy that will unleash the private sector, lift people out of poverty, and deliver a real recovery.”
In setting the stakes for the election, the first lady made a direct appeal to the women who dominated the crowd inside the arena, where her husband spoke in April.
Obama said the first bill her husband signed into law called for equal pay for women and he fought in the health care debate to make contraception more accessible.
“My husband will always have our backs, ladies, always,” she said, in one of her biggest applause lines of the 30-minute speech. “He will always, always fight to ensure that women can make our own decisions about our bodies and our health care.”
The first lady’s star power among women was evident from the moment she stepped off her plane. At the airport she met five campaign volunteers. She greeted Fran Lynch, a campaign volunteer from Durham, with a smile and hug. “You are an inspiration to all women,” Lynch said.