"I can't tell you how special this place is to us," Michelle Obama told a Tucson audience Monday, as she returned for the first time since she and the president came for a tribute to the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting victims and heroes.

The first lady went on to tell the campaign gathering at the Tucson Convention Center that the upcoming presidential election boils down to making a fundamental choice about who we are as a country.

"Will we be a country where opportunity is limited to just a few at the top?" Mrs. Obama said to 450 people who paid $150 to $10,000 per person to attend the campaign fundraiser. "Or will we be a place where if you work hard, you can get ahead no matter who you are or how you started out?"

During a 25-minute speech, the first lady said it won't be easy, but that President Obama can win the traditionally Republican state this November.

"I know we are going to do it here because of people like you," she said, later adding: "Let me tell you something, Tucson, it is time for us to get moving. It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

Late afternoon arrival

Mrs. Obama's stay of a couple of hours in the Old Pueblo had begun about 75 minutes earlier, when she landed at Tucson International Airport about 5:45 p.m. in a 737 emblazoned with an American flag.

She wore a sleeveless, bright color-block dress and blue heels. When she approached a group of schoolchildren waiting for her at the airport, they greeted her like an old friend. No one acted overwhelmed or shy.

After the first lady's 15-minute visit with the group ended with a group hug - she spoke with each student beforehand - and she sped off to the convention center in a motorcade, the students finally let their true feelings be known.

They whooped and hollered.

"I had so much fun," said 11-year-old Haile Thomas, one of two students who got to walk Mrs. Obama from her plane to the other students. "It kind of felt like a dream, to actually see the first lady in person and escort her to the other kids. It was fantastic."

Haile and the other students volunteer at Tucson Village Farm, which is supported by the University of Arizona and Pima County Cooperative Extension. At the farm, the kids grow, harvest and cook food, and learn about healthy living. The program meshes well with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign against childhood obesity.

Alex Sparks, 11, said he was nervous to meet the first lady, but managed to compose himself to hold a conversation. "It was really neat," Alex said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She asked us about what we do on the farm, what we grow."

Annika Shepp, 8, was so excited after Mrs. Obama left that she could hardly stop bouncing around. "She asked me how old I was, and then she asked me 'What do you do?' " Annika said. "I said I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the people that are starving and can't eat."

Haile said Mrs. Obama was impressed with what she's heard about the farm. "She just said our work was phenomenal," Haile said. "Really inspiring."

Some protesters

On the streets of downtown, Keith Van Heyningen and Jill Henderson, two tea party members, took up position in the hopes the first lady would pass by. Armed with a "Nobama" sign, Henderson said she wanted to remind people that "we can't afford another four years of Obama."

They were part of a contingent of about a dozen people in the convention center vicinity awaiting Mrs. Obama's arrival.

Van Heyningen said he wanted her to know she wasn't welcome. "I'm here for the fact we have the first lady coming to preach about urban gardens and fat children when we have much larger issues to deal with," he said.

A block over, 77-year-old Korean War veteran Walter Graham held up a sign announcing there were 190 days until the presidential election, and he's a Sean Hannity and Fox TV fan. "I've been a leader my whole life, and people follow good leaders. He's not a good leader,' Graham said of the president. "I'm proud of my country, but my country is in pretty bad shape right now."

Graham also expressed his displeasure with the large law enforcement presence. He said FBI agents walked him to his car and demanded to know if he was carrying any weapons.

Huachuca City residents Mike and Victoria Bettencourt drove up to Tucson just hoping to see a glimpse of the first lady. "We're really strong supporters of President Obama and Michelle," Victoria Bettencourt said as they stood across the street from Graham. "We wanted to show her not all Arizonans are against the Obama administration."

Kevin and Tanishia Hamilton also wanted to show their support for the Obamas. "I'm a supporter of the fact he doesn't mind getting out there and trying to do the right thing for the country and not special interest groups," Kevin Hamilton said. "I think he's done a good job considering what he was dealt."

Standing ovation

Mrs. Obama took the stage at the TCC's Leo Rich Theatre just before 7 p.m. to a standing ovation from a boisterous crowd, after being introduced by Pima Community College student and Air Force veteran Maria Elena Moreno.

The first lady drew laughs by saying: "You all sound like you're fired up and ready to go, so I'll just take my shoes off and go home."

She thanked Gloria Giffords, mother of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head Jan. 8, 2011, for coming to Monday's event, and told her that she and President Obama are inspired by her daughter's courage and determination.

"We love her and are with her, with you, with the family every step of the way," Mrs. Obama said.

She also gave a shoutout to Giffords' former district director, Democrat Ron Barber, who is running against Republican Jesse Kelly to fill her congressional seat. And she thanked local group Calexico for its "amazing" musical performance before her talk.

Mrs. Obama said the president has worked to improve education, keep the country safe, pass health-care legislation, provide tax cuts to middle-class families, and to try to close tax loopholes so that "millionaires and billionaires aren't paying lower tax rates than firefighters and teachers."

She said President Obama inherited a struggling economy in which an average of 750,000 jobs were lost a month. Over the last two years, the private sector has gained 4 million jobs, she said.

"While we certainly have a long way to go to rebuild the economy, today millions of folks are collecting a paycheck again," she said. "That's what's at stake. That's the choice we face."

The first lady's visit came about a week after Vice President Joe Biden headlined a fundraiser in Phoenix. The two events are designed to highlight that the Democrats think Arizona is "in play" this year. A pair of recent polls suggest President Obama may have a shot in Arizona, a state in which no Democratic presidential candidate has won since Bill Clinton in 1996 (and before that, which no Democrat had won since Harry Truman).

An Arizona survey in mid-April by the Behavior Research Center said Obama had a 42-40 percent lead on Republican Mitt Romney. A survey in mid-April by the Merrill/Morrison Institute at Arizona State University showed Obama trailing Romney 42-40.

"If the election were held today, Romney would win," said Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and longtime Arizona pollster. "But a lot could happen."


This was Michelle Obama's third visit to Tucson since 2008, and her second since becoming first lady.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at bmccombs@azstarnet.com or 573-4213.