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The first lady hits the stump

The more popular half of the White House’s first couple is hitting the campaign trail.

Michelle Obama, who has largely avoided political events this midterm cycle, is slated to hold rallies and fundraisers for Democratic Senate candidates in seven states over the next two weeks, including stops in Illinois, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

Obama campaigned extensively for her husband during the 2008 presidential race, although her individual appearances were generally low-key, featuring intimate roundtable events and discussions about specific policy issues like support for military families. The upcoming tour of midterm battleground states -- Illinois, Colorado, Wisconsin, New York, Washington, Connecticut, and California -- will be her most extensive foray into campaign politics for more than two years.

The first lady remains much more popular than her husband nationwide. An NBC/WSJ poll in August showed less than one in five respondents saying they have a negative view of Mrs. Obama.

She is particularly popular with women, African Americans and other core Democratic voters – constituencies that could be crucial in tight Senate races nationwide. According to the NBC/WSJ poll, 57 percent of female respondents have a positive impression of Michelle Obama, compared to just 43 percent of men. Comparatively, just 48 percent of women view Barack Obama in a positive light.

Michelle Obama also performs better than her husband now with suburban voters and retirees.

But a downside for Obama could be that her fans – not unlike 2008 Obama voters as a whole – simply aren’t all that motivated to vote in November. Almost 60 percent of Michelle Obama supporters expressed relatively low interest in the midterm elections when they were surveyed in August.

Democrats are hoping that the first lady can turn those numbers around.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will appear on behalf of Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, who is vying to win the seat that the first lady’s husband occupied for four years. Giannoulias was bullish on Sunday about the energy that the first lady’s upcoming appearance in her own home state could inject into the race, telling reporters that his campaign office had been flooded with calls from supporters since the news of her visit was announced.

Giannoulias trailed GOP Rep. Mark Kirk by just one point in a Suffolk University poll earlier this month. In that poll, women favored Giannoulias by about 43 percent to 36 percent, with about 12 percent undecided.

Pam Monetti, the co-president of a group called Illinois Democratic Women, said that the first lady’s visit will help to elevate Giannoulias’s stance on women’s issues as well as economic policies that would help struggling families.

“She’s a mom,” said Monetti. “A lot of women voters see that she faces the same things that we face.”

On Thursday, the first lady will appear in Denver, Colorado, at an event for incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet. Bennet is in a difficult race against Tea Party-backed candidate Ken Buck, who defeated establishment GOP favorite Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the Aug. 10 primary. The incumbent Democrat himself overcame a tough primary challenge from Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Bennet has been consistently behind in polling since late summer, although recent automated telephone surveys have shown the race tightening slightly to about a five point margin.

A former superintendent of Denver public schools, Bennet was mostly unknown in the state when he was appointed to replace Sen. Ken Salazar – who became Obama’s Secretary of the Interior – in 2009. In ads, Buck has portrayed Bennet as a “rubber stamp for his friends in Washington.”

Democrats hope that Obama’s appearance could serve to inject some publicity into the campaign just a few days after early voting began in the state. “Our mail-in ballots dropped today, and this starts our get out the vote effort,” said Pat Waak, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. “Having Michelle come into a state where she’s extremely popular will energize voters to get them to fill out their ballots.”

Waak says that female voters in the state are particularly wary of Buck’s policy proposals. “They are very concerned about health care reform, which [Buck] wants to repeal,” she said. “They’re looking for very specific economic policies – Buck doesn’t have any.”

But the presence of any national Democratic surrogate could be risky in a state where the president’s approval rating among likely voters was just 39 percent in a McClatchy/Marist poll last month.

Professor Kenneth Bickers, who heads the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says that the presence of any figure associated with unpopular Washington D.C. could backfire for the Democratic candidate.

“Bennet has been trying to not nationalize the Senate race,” Bickers said, noting that the appointed senator has been trying to focus on state-specific issues. “But having Michelle Obama, or the president, or any another national figure out here serves to nationalize the race. To the extent that’s happening, it’s helping Buck, not Bennet.”