DURHAM, N.C. — First lady Michelle Obama said Wednesday in battleground North Carolina her husband is fighting to ensure all people have the tools to succeed and live the American dream — comments that drew a contrast with Mitt Romney's divisive words in a secretly recorded speech that rattled his campaign this week.
She never mentioned the Republican nominee in her 25-minute address in the gymnasium at North Carolina Central University in Durham. But her first public speech since Romney's words from a May fundraiser surfaced late Monday reinforced what the Obama campaign believes are the true differences between the candidacies.
"As president, you have to be committed by the struggles, hopes and dreams of all the people," she said to cheers from more than 3,000 students and supporters. "You truly need a strong inner compass, a core commitment to your fellow citizens ... that's what it takes to be a leader."
Her comments were the latest from Obama's campaign circles taking advantage of the unauthorized video of Romney dismissing the half of Americans who don't pay income taxes. She planned to speak later at East Carolina University in Greenville.
The first lady told the affectionate crowd how her husband's family helped guide his leadership in the White House.
"Barack Obama knows the American dream because he's lived it," she said. "He fights every day so that everyone in this country can have that same opportunity no matter who we are or where we're from or what we look like or who we love."
The first lady urged people to work hard for the campaign in the final seven weeks of the race and get friends and family registered to vote. She checked off a list of achievements from her husband's administration, including more grants to attend college and the Affordable Care Act, which allows students to remain on their parents' health insurance policy to age 26.
"Tell them how Barack ended the war in Iraq. Tell them how we as a nation took down Osama bin Laden," she said to more cheers.
The North Carolina trip marked the 11th time Michelle Obama has visited the swing state, including a few days earlier this month during the Democratic National Convention, where she gave a prime-time speech. The president has visited 12 times since taking the oath of office in January 2009, including the Charlotte convention.
Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 by only 14,000 votes, handing the state to a Democratic nominee for the first time since Jimmy Carter won in 1976. This year's race looks to be more daunting for Obama in the state as Republicans have vowed not to be caught napping and Mitt Romney's campaign has invested time, money and candidate appearances.
The event was designed to rally the faithful at N.C. Central, a historically black college campus where Obama support was electric in 2008. The Greenville rally also was expected to attract the broader eastern North Carolina community, where voter registration is lopsided in the Democratic column but where Republicans have performed well in the region in federal races going back to the first winning races by Sen. Jesse Helms.
Arriving at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the first lady was greeted by 14 children from Y.E. Smith Museum School in Durham. Mrs. Obama spoke to each child, hugging many of them and asking them about school.
"Is fourth grade going OK?" she asked one student, adding later, "Thanks for coming to see me."
She huddled all the students together in a close circle, answered more questions about the White House and her appearance on the TV show "iCarly," and gave what sounded like a pep talk to the students, who benefited from a local Durham initiative designed to help students graduate from high school and get prepared for college or a career.
"We are so proud of you all, all the good work you're doing," she told the students before ultimately posing for pictures and leaving in her motorcade.