By JULIE PACE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — He talks about his single mother and the grandmother who helped raise him. He tells voters he misses his wife when they're apart. She tells voters he's still cute, even with gray hair.
President Barack Obama and the first lady are frequently sharing personal tidbits on the campaign trail, seeking to remind people of one big reason they voted for him in the first place — a lot of them like him personally — while countering Republican rival Mitt Romney's assertions that the president is running on division and hate.
"Your president is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills," Mrs. Obama said Wednesday, taking the stage before her husband in Iowa. "He's the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at a bank."
Not that it's become simply a campaign of uplifting family stories.
With polls showing a close race less than three months before the election, Obama also has been pummeling Romney with negative television ads. He mocks Romney's tax policies. And he declines to denounce an ad from an outside group supporting him that suggests Romney was at least partially responsible for a woman's cancer death.
In response, Romney recently accused Obama of running a campaign based on "division and attack and hatred." It was an attempt to both fire up the GOP base and undercut Obama in the fight for undecided voters who could determine the outcome in close states.
Polls show voters view Obama as more likable than Romney, potentially a big help to an incumbent saddled with a sluggish national economy and an 8.3 percent unemployment rate. So Romney is likely to keep trying to chip away at the president's personal appeal. And the Obamas will encourage Americans to stay behind a president many of them still admire.
To that end, the Obamas have been emphasizing anew the president's roots, especially elements that voters can relate to and that he's long used to connect with them.
But the Obamas have tweaked their telling of the president's personal narrative to fit the economic times. The campaigns are well aware of polls that indicate voters believe Obama better understands their economic problems, even though they say Romney would be better at managing the economy.
Thus, the Obamas have less to say about the improbable journey of a boy born in Hawaii to a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. Instead, they tell stories that go to the heart of middle class economic struggles.
Obama says that when he meets a single mom, he thinks about his own mother who, "even though she didn't have money and she only had the support of her parents — my grandparents — she was able to put herself through school, work at the same time and still give her kids a great education."
Meeting a military veteran, he says, reminds him of his grandfather who fought in World War II and "was able to go to college on the GI Bill. And my grandparents were able to buy their first home with an FHA loan."
The first lady, who has been campaigning across the country on her own for much of the summer, offers anecdotes about her upbringing on Chicago's South Side. Standing alongside her husband this week, she said: "Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. This is not a hypothetical for him."
The family stories also could suggest a comparison with Romney, who was raised by a wealthy automobile executive turned Michigan governor before amassing a fortune of his own.
While Romney speaks warmly of his father, he has few anecdotes about his upbringing in his campaign speeches. The Republican has a similarly warm rapport on the campaign trail with his wife, Ann, whom he affectionately refers to as his "sweetheart."
His five sons are among his most prominent surrogates, helping with stories about his penchant for pulling pranks and with the pictures they post on Twitter of the candidate and his grandchildren.
And Mrs. Romney has proven to be her husband's top defender.
It's the same for Mrs. Obama, whose approval ratings far exceed her husband's.
After Romney charged that Obama was running a campaign of hate, the first lady walked on stage with her husband hand in hand in Dubuque, Iowa.
He lamented having been away from her for five days, and he drew applause when he said that while he may not be a perfect president, "I do think she is a perfect first lady."
She, in turn, offered a vigorous defense of his character.
"It all boils down to who you are and what you stand for," Mrs. Obama said. "We all know who my husband is, don't we? And we all know what he stands for."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .
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