WAKE FOREST, N.C. — There were two first ladies on the stage Thursday, but the one running for president clearly came second.
“Seriously, is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?” Hillary Clinton asked the 11,000 who packed into a basketball arena here, making Clinton’s first joint appearance with Obama the largest indoor event of her entire campaign.
The crowd seemed to agree with the candid assessment. And Clinton spoke first, in a subtle acknowledgment that she was not the main event less than two weeks before Election Day.
The Democratic nominee has been open about the limitations of her ability to rouse an audience. So her campaign has brought in ringers to pack the stands, from Elizabeth Warren, whose draw in New Hampshire this week forced organizers to move the event outside, to President Obama, who set previous indoor-crowd size record for the campaign, at a event in nearby Charlotte.
Clinton has had her disposable more auxiliary surrogate power than perhaps any other presidential candidate in recent history. But it’s Michelle Obama who has emerged as the undisputed star of the 2016 campaign.
The first lady’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she marveled about watching her daughters play on the lawn of an executive mansion built in part by slaves, and another about sexual harassment, have risen above the din of a grueling presidential campaign.
Clinton spokesperson Brain Fallon said the campaign can’t get enough of the first lady on the stump, calling her “an absolute rock star” and saying her “when they go low, we go high” mantra has become the guiding philosophy of the campaign.
Those close to the Obamas, meanwhile, have had to bat away increased speculation about a potential political career for the first lady, who has never been fond of campaigning.
Interrupted by shouts of “we love you, Michelle” on Thursday, Clinton heaped praise on Obama. She promised to take care of the vegetable garden Obama planted the South Lawn of the White House, and even expressing some envy about her dancing ability.
“Oh, one could only hope,” Clinton said longingly as the first lady did a little shimmy in her seat.
Clinton called her successor in the East Wing an outstanding First Lady, “And let’s be real, as our nation’s first African-American first lady, she’s faced pressures I never will.”
By the time Obama took the podium, she said the “mini-tribute” from Clinton had “kind of thrown me a little bit.”
But she returned the praise and vouched for “my girl” Clinton a way one might for their geeky younger step-sister who just transferred schools.
“People wonder, yes, Hillary Clinton is my friend,” said Obama, whom polls show is the single most popular political figure in America.
“First ladies, we rock!” Obama added, midway through a stump speech that both eviscerated Trump without mentioning him by name, while also calling Clinton more qualified than either of their husbands.
And Obama spoke with about the presidency through the eyes of a mother, not a politician, saying that what she looks for in a commander in chief is a role model for her daughters.
“That’s why every day, we try to be the kind of people, the kind of leaders that your children deserve, whether you agree with our politics or not,” Obama said of herself and her husband, whose White House has been marred by none of the salacious drama of the first Clinton one.
To African-Americans and young people, or anyone less than enthused about the election this year, Obama asked them for more, not less.
“I want you remember that folks marched and protested for your right to vote. They endured beatings and jail times. They scarified their lives for this right,” she said. “So I know you can get yourself to the polls to exercise that right.”
But that’s not enough. “And after you vote, volunteer. No no no, we need to volunteer,” she said. “It’s turnout that’s going to make the difference.”
The high-footprint event was timed with the day the number of early voting locations expanded exponentially in many counties across the state, a key part of Clinton’s strategy to win a state has surprisingly become friendly territory the perennial battlegrounds of Ohio or Iowa.
“Because make no mistake, casting our vote is the ultimate way we go high when they go low,” Obama concluded.