Michelle Obama looked out at a St. Paul field house filled with supporters of her husband Monday afternoon and told them: "For me, this is not just politics. It's personal. It's personal for me, it's personal for all of us now."

And with that, Democrat Barack Obama's No. 1 campaign surrogate put the presidential race in the most personal terms possible.

During her appearance at Macalester College, and an earlier one in Rochester, Michelle Obama stuck closely to the campaign's tight focus on the economy, mostly filtering it through her experiences as a wife, daughter and mother.

With three weeks to go until Election Day, she steered far from the negative tone that has increasingly marked the campaign, never once mentioning Republican John McCain, her husband's opponent in the race for the White House.

The closest she came in her half-hour speech was at its beginning, when she asked the crowd of more than 4,000, "are you tired of that subprime leadership in the White House?"

Obama repeatedly boiled down her message to a simple formulation: "Don't we deserve leaders who get it? [I've been campaigning] for 20 months with the sole task of telling you Barack Obama gets it. That's all I know. I can't speak for anyone else."

Quickly going over her husband's positions on the economy, the Iraq war, education reform and energy policy, Obama sounded the more general themes of hope and change that imbued her husband's early stump speech months ago, instead of his blunter bullet-point approach in recent weeks.

At a time when her husband has been surging in the polls, she gave the type of speech that's used to close the deal in the waning days of a campaign, complete with expressions of affection.

Recalling the conversation they had at the beginning of the campaign nearly two years ago, Michelle Obama said: "Babe -- Barack is one of these guys who believes he can fly, who if he works hard enough, it'll happen. But I told him you can only get us 70 percent of the way there. Barack Obama's done his job. He's built a miraculous political organization. He's done it all against all odds. He's done it with a measure of grace, poise and dignity. ...

"Now, I've told Barack he's gotten us 85 percent of the way there. You've done your part. The rest of it's on us. That's where all of you come in."

'It's about all of us'

Returning to words Barack Obama invariably used on the stump months ago, she said her husband "always said this was not about him. It never will be. It's about all of us. It's because of you that we're here in this moment of a time of change."

Michelle Obama's visit, her third of the presidential campaign, is additional evidence that both the Obama and McCain campaigns believe Minnesota will be in play on Election Day.

The trip came three days after McCain held a town hall meeting in Lakeville. On Thursday, Todd Palin, husband of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, is scheduled to visit northern Minnesota.

Although Minnesota has gone to Democrats in every presidential election since 1972 and Obama has led in most recent polls, McCain's appearance and recent heavy rotation of TV advertising indicate that his strategists believe the state is within reach.

At a news conference Monday at the State Capitol, the McCain campaign took aim at Obama's relationship with Chicago educator William Ayers, a former member of the Vietnam-era radical Weather Underground group.

Obama has said that he served on a couple of boards with Ayers and that the two were acquaintances. But Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a co-chairman of the McCain campaign in Minnesota, said the relationship may have run deeper.

"There's a question about integrity," Stanek said. "The American people need to know what an Obama White House would look like." 

Staff Writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184