CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- First lady Michelle Obama opened the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday by connecting the tale of the first couple's humble beginnings to a presidency dedicated to lifting the middle class, defending the rights of women and protecting the elderly.

"We are playing a long game here," Obama said her husband reminds her frequently. "And that change is hard and change is slow and it never happens all at once."

Obama's address, kicking off the party's three-day convention, had the same loving tone as the one delivered a week ago by Ann Romney, wife of Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whose speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., aimed to humanize her wealthy husband and promote his plan to right the nation's struggling economy.

Obama's speech focused on her husband's record of helping ordinary people, the very people Republicans claim his policies have hurt by stunting economic growth, exploding the national debt and keeping unemployment floating above 8 percent.

She said that reflected her husband's essential qualities, which she didn't want him to lose after becoming president.

"Well, today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways that I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are -- it reveals who you are."

While earlier convention speakers portrayed Romney as someone whose life of privilege left him out of touch with average Americans, Obama focused on the humble beginnings of her and her husband, the struggles and sacrifices that she said shaped her husband's view of what America needed.

She talked of her husband's rusted-out car and his dumpster-diving taste in furniture and how his best shoes were a half-size too small. It was a life that inspired him to sign into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, health care reforms and the bailout of the auto industries -- achievements Republicans portray as instances of over-reaching government.

"Barack knows the American Dream because he's lived it," she said, "and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are or where we're from or what we look like or who we love."

The first lady waited until halfway through her speech to finally address her husband's greatest vulnerability, the lagging economy, but she insisted that even if the president didn't resolve all of the nation's economic problems, he did make things better. Obama "brought our economy from the brink of collapse to creating jobs again, jobs you can raise a family on. Good jobs right here in the United States of America."

Obama's speech was preceded by a video that showed how the first lady fought childhood obesity, supported military families and served as the White House's "mom-in-chief."

She made a strong emotional connection with the delegates, many of whom were visibly moved by her words.

Democrats are hoping she will help shore up support among female voters, who make up more than 50 percent of the electorate and who polls show have become concerned about the Obama administration's handling of the economy.

Earlier in the evening and throughout the day, women lined up on the convention stage and in a special forums to warn against a Republican administration that they said would strip away abortion rights and enact policies that would ultimately "send us so far back, we are going to be in the kitchen."

Obama drew loud applause when she touched on that theme, telling the crowd that her husband "believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care."