First lady Michelle Obama made her first campaign trip to Tampa Bay on Thursday, promoting healthy eating, raising campaign money and acknowledging to supporters that change doesn't happen overnight.
"Real change is slow, and it never happens all at once. But if we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight, if we keep doing what we know in our hearts is the right thing, then we always get there. We always do,'' Mrs. Obama told a crowd of more than 200 at a fundraising reception at the Davis Islands home of developer Joel Cantor.
The fundraiser took place just a few minutes from the St. Pete Times Forum where next August the Republicans will crown a nominee to take on President Barack Obama. Admission started at $1,000, with $5,000 donations earning a photo with the first lady, and $35,800 to be on the host committee. Mrs. Obama, 47, also held fundraisers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
Earlier, Mrs. Obama was greeted at Tampa International Airport by 10 girls and 10 boys from John Sexton Elementary School in St. Petersburg, which has been recognized nationally for nutrition programs. The first lady has made healthy eating and combating childhood obesity a top priority.
Seth Fitch, 9, wore his first tie and Breann Rouse, 10, saw her first plane up close, when she greeted the first lady, handing her a colorful bouquet.
The fourth- and fifth-graders told Mrs. Obama about their involvement in 5000 Role Models of Excellence and Girlfriends programs that encourage responsible behaviors, and the Walking School Bus.
Breann knows a little bit about the first lady from seeing her on the Disney Channel.
"She does a healthy thing," Breann said.
For the Sexton kids, Mrs. Obama's visit was less about politics than sheer excitement.
"She was a lot more cheerful and joyful than I thought," said William Porter, who wore new dress shoes and a white shirt. He had gone to bed late the night before after hearing he was selected to greet her and got up before his dad woke him. He noted her nails were painted pink and she wore pointy black shoes and her voice was different than on TV, a little raspy.
"She's way more taller than you think," he said.
Olivia Winters said it would be the most memorable day of her life.
At the Cantor home on Davis Islands, the first lady exhorted the crowd to get to work.
Joel Cantor is emerging as one of the Obama campaign's top Tampa Bay fundraisers, along with lobbyist and veteran fundraising consultant Justin Day and Mark Sena, a communications and financial services executive and husband of former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena.
President Obama faces a tough re-election campaign amid a lousy economy, and Mrs. Obama told the supporters gathered that the president gets it.
"Believe me, Barack knows what it means when a family struggles," she said. "I hear (it) in my husband's voice when he returns home after a long day traveling the country, in the Oval Office, and he tells me about the people he's met. . . . And I hear the passion and determination in his voice. He says, 'You won't believe what folks are going through, Michelle.' That's what he tells me. He says, 'It's not right. We have so much more work to do.' "
She touted the president's accomplishments — from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to health care reform to killing Osama bin Laden. And she touted the president's job creation proposals that so far have been shot down in Congress.
"We're talking about a tax cut that could mean the difference from these businesses hiring new employees, or handing out pink slips — between keeping their doors open, or closing shop for good. That is what's at stake here," she said.
The election, she suggested, amounted to a fundamental question of America's values.
"It's about whether we as a country will honor that fundamental promise that we made generations ago, that when times are hard, we do not abandon our fellow citizens. We don't let everything fall apart for struggling families. Instead, we say, 'There but for the grace of God goes my family.' Instead, we say we're all in this together and we extend a helping hand. That is why even though there are some trying to stop this bill from moving forward my president — and my husband — he is not going to give up. He is going to keep fighting."
After speaking for about 20 minutes, Mrs. Obama rallied the crowd.
"Let me ask you one final question: Are you in?"
Yes, the crowd cheered.
"I mean are you really ready to make this happen? Because this is going to require each of you to grab somebody by the shoulders and make them understand what's at stake, how their self interest is directly tied to how our country develops. It's up to each of you to work like you've never worked before."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.