CHICAGO — First lady Michelle Obama returned to the campaign trail Wednesday for the first time in nearly two years, raising money for an Illinois Democrat locked in a close race for the U.S. Senate seat once held by her husband, President Barack Obama.
It's the latest helping hand from the White House for state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who's facing Republican Mark Kirk, a five-term congressman, in the Nov. 2 election. The president headlined his second fundraiser for Giannoulias last week.
The first lady, who stumped in Wisconsin earlier Wednesday for Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, said Giannoulias would make a "phenomenal" senator.
"We need this man in Washington," she told a roomful of supporters at a private club in downtown Chicago.
The two-state Midwest swing was the first time the popular first lady has hit the campaign trail since her husband's 2008 election.
Over the next two weeks, she has other stops planned in Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Washington, California and a joint rally Sunday with her husband in Ohio.
Obama talked about her husband's accomplishments in office but acknowledged there was still work to be done.
"Barack knows that too many folks are out of work right now," she said.
The first lady said Obama needs allies in Washington like Giannoulias and supporters like those at the fundraiser.
"I told you that you had to have my husband's back ... I told you that if I were giving him up, you had to have his back because my husband can't do this alone. He can't do it alone. He needs leaders like Alexi right by his side," she said.
Obama encouraged people to early vote for Giannoulias, saying she would cast a ballot Thursday in Chicago after spending the night at her South Side home. She called Giannoulias a "handsome young man."
"People will vote for him," she said.
Tickets for the chicken dinner ranged from $500 to $10,000 per couple with a photo with Obama. The event also benefited the Illinois Democrats' coordinated campaign. Organizers said about 250 people attended, but the crowd appeared smaller than that.
Giannoulias stressed the importance of his fight against Kirk, saying the Nov. 2 election was bigger than him.
"This is a race about the future of the United States," he said. He said Illinois must send a new Senator to Washington who can work with Illinois lawmakers like Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
After raising money for Giannoulias, the first lady appeared at a second Chicago event to raise money for congressional Democrats to help Reps. Bill Foster and Debbie Halvorson, who are locked in tight races, and hopeful Dan Seals, who is making his third bid for Kirk's seat.
Tickets for the congressional fundraiser ranged from $250 a person to $30,400 for a couple. Organizers said the event raised $400,000.
"I know that for a lot of folks change hasn't come fast enough but believe me it hasn't come fast enough for Barack or for any of these three candidates," she said.
In the Wisconsin rally for Feingold, the first lady said it was important to re-ignite the passion that got the president elected two years ago.
"This election isn't just about all that we've accomplished these past couple of years," she said. "This election, Wisconsin, is about all we have left to do in the months and years ahead."
Feingold is facing an unexpected battle as he seeks a fourth term in the Senate. Recent polls show his Republican challenger, businessman Ron Johnson, with a slight lead.
Mrs. Obama lauded Feingold for supporting health care reform and campaign finance reform, and for fighting to create jobs and cut taxes. She also touted Feingold's maverick credentials, saying the president has mentioned how Feingold doesn't always agree with him.
"So Russ, you and I have a little something in common," she said, drawing laughter from the hundreds of supporters who paid $250 or $500 to attend the luncheon. A campaign spokesman said the event raised at least $250,000.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin released a statement saying Feingold can't call himself an independent when he accepts fundraising help from Washington insiders.
"A parade of D.C. insiders probably isn't the best tactic for a candidate trying to prove that he hasn't 'gone Washington' over the last 18 years," state GOP chairman Reince Priebus said.
Associated Press Writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.