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Michelle Obama: from lightning rod to mom-in-chief

As Michelle Obama chisels out a new model for the office of first lady, she has become a key campaign asset. She speaks Tuesday night at the Democratic convention.

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Since her husband took office, she has been featured on the covers of at least 22 magazines, from Ebony and Conde Nast Traveler to Time and People. Her television appearances total almost three dozen and include a range of forums: "Iron Chef America," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "iCarly," "The Colbert Report," and more. Meanwhile, New York Magazine has dutifully kept track of her outfits in a "Michelle Obama Look Book," which includes photo captions the likes of which the first lady probably never imagined as she made her way through Harvard Law School: 

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“Talking with Kobe Bryant after the men's basketball game between the United States and France at the Basketball Arena in London, England. Top, cardigan, and pants by Zero + Maria Cornejo.” 

For a younger generation of voters, Obama has ushered in a new era of the first lady as more than a celebrity, a fashion icon, and a mom. Her approval ratings indicate widespread affection among the American public. She also scores well with coveted swing voters; that May Gallup poll showed her approval at 90 percent among Democrats and 66 percent with independents. Almost 4 in 10 Republicans gave her a favorable rating. 

It’s obvious then why she is in hot demand on the campaign trail. She has headlined more than 90 events since May 2011, according to a composite provided by a spokeswoman. Many of these gatherings are in the heart of swing state country – Richmond, Va., and Palm Beach, Fla., St. Louis and Holderness, N.H. – locations her husband needs to carry in November to win a second term and places to which a campaign would never dispatch a controversial spouse.

Obama has courted supporters, donors especially, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and even Gwen Stefani’s Beverly Hills home off Mulholland Drive. At the No Doubt singer’s luxurious property in a gated community, tickets started at $2,500 for a family of four, with at least 400 expected to attend. All money raised went to the Obama Victory Fund.

"Barack can't do it alone. He's not Spider-Man. He's not a superhero. He's a human, so we need your help," Obama told an audience that included Stefani’s bandmates and other stars, like Nicole Richie and actor Jeffrey Tambor, according to a pool report. "I am not just talking to the adults here today. I am talking to the young people here as well. All of our young people – you might not be old enough to vote. You vote at school, I know – I met several young people who are going to be voting for my husband, who are 10 and under – we accept those votes. But you can play an important role in this election, too. I want you all to feel empowered." 

In Jackson, Wyo., in August, Obama’s arrival for an event at the Snow King Resort was splashed across the front page of the Jackson Hole Daily: “First lady woos 700 at King.” 

Attendees describe a crowd enthralled by the first lady. 

“She is an example of someone who made it from meager beginnings,” says Tom Frisbie, chairman of the Teton County Democratic Party. “It’s truly an American story I like to hear.” 

Marcia Kunstel, a Wyoming Democratic Central Committeewoman, says Obama did a great job explaining to the Jackson crowd why the issues for which her party and the president advocate are important. The first lady reinforces for anyone on the fence that the administration is doing its best to make the future bright for America’s young people, she adds. And she looks as if she’s having a good time doing it. 

“I think that in setting aside her own career she adapted herself to the role of first lady in a very compelling and professional way and made that position an important one,” Ms. Kunstel says. “She managed to give some substance to it without drawing criticism that she was trying to be the co-president.” 

Kunstel adds: “Any number of people I talked to as we were leaving said she’s the one who ought to be running for office. She really is quite appealing.”

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