Michelle Obama Gets Top Billing On DNC's First Day

The Democratic National Convention began Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Siegel talks with Mara Liasson about the day's events.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour in Charlotte, North Carolina with the first day of the Democratic National Convention. It is a three-day affair. Tonight's highlights include a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama and a keynote address from an up-and-coming Democrat named Julian Castro. He's the mayor of San Antonio.

Joining us now from the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mara, let's talk about Mrs. Obama first. She's been a very popular first lady. How does she put that work for her husband's reelection campaign tonight?

LIASSON: Well, no one knows Barack Obama better than his wife, and tonight she's going to talk about his values and motivations. Like Ann Romney, she wants to humanize the president, show his softer side, but there are some big differences between Michelle Obama and Ann Romney's path. Ann Romney gave a very effective, charming speech in Tampa, but she's also been on the attack.

She's talked in interviews, accusing the Obama campaign of trying to destroy Mitt Romney. She said it's time for an adult to be in charge. That kind of campaigning is off limits for Michelle Obama. In 2008, when she said anything the slightest bit edgy or controversial, she got tremendous criticism. And she commented on the constraints on the nation's first African-American first lady, if she ever appeared aggrieved or angry.

But now she's got 60 percent approval ratings. She's been very careful about managing her image and her role. She's focused on issues like physical fitness and nutrition and military families. So by staying above the fray, by being a nonpartisan figure, the Obama campaign hopes that Mrs. Obama can transfer some of that popularity to the president.

SIEGEL: Now, Mara, we're going to hear more about the keynote speaker, Julian Castro, in a few minutes. But first, looking ahead, what other speakers are you keeping an eye on, either tonight or in the nights to come?

LIASSON: Well, tonight, we're going to hear from Newark Mayor Cory Booker. He's going to talk about the Democrats' platform. We're going to hear from Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland, who will not repeat his comment that we're not better off than we were four years ago. We're going to hear from Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, the service employees union, which is the backbone of the Democratic Party's grassroots.

Tim Kaine, former DNC chair, who's running for Senate in Virginia. It's one of the highest-profile Senate races in the country. We're going to hear from Nancy Keenan, the head of NARAL, talking about abortion - big flashpoint in this election. And Lilly Ledbetter, who is the woman whose equal pay act is named after. And beyond tonight, I'm really interested in listening to Bill Clinton.

The Obama high command was asked this morning who's vetting his speech, and they said - he's vetting his speech.

SIEGEL: Now, the Obama campaign describes this as a working convention, meaning that they're using the proceedings as a local organizing tool. What are they actually doing, and are they doing anything new?

LIASSON: They're not doing anything new, but they're trying to take it to a new level. They're trying to fire up delegates who, of course, are their frontline volunteers. They're trying to recruit new ones. They have an award system. If you give a certain amount of volunteer hours, you get a ticket to hear Obama speak on Thursday night. They're taking names. They're taking emails, and they're adding to their vast list of data about voters.

SIEGEL: Mara, you were in Tampa last week at the Republican Convention, as I was. Now you've gotten an extra ticket to Charlotte. Any sense yet of significant differences between the show put on by the GOP and the Democrats' version of things?

LIASSON: Well, the biggest difference is the difference that always exists between the two parties: diversity. The Republicans have a very diverse lineup of speakers on the stage, but Democrats' diversity is on the stage and in the seats. There also is just a completely different goal for each candidate. Romney wanted to address his deficit with women, make himself more likable.

The president this week has to drive the contrast with Romney, try to rebut the main line of attacks from Tampa, which is that he inspired a lot of passion four years ago. That's given way to disappointment. People aren't better off than they were four years ago. He also has to leave people with a clear idea of what a second Obama term would do in terms of issues like the deficit and jobs and education and immigration.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson, speaking to us from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

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