WASHINGTON -- As Republican presidential candidates trade barbs in Florida over issues important to Latino voters, they will be confronted Thursday by an Obama campaign surrogate with a very different message for the same people: First Lady Michelle Obama.
Her daylong trip will begin, symbolically, in Tampa, host city of the 2012 Republican National Convention. There, she will attend an event with Goya Foods president Bob Unanue to announce a partnership between the nation's largest Hispanic-owned food company and the Obama administration.
At the center of the partnership is Mi Plato (My Plate), a recently launched bilingual educational tool managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help families make better dietary choices.
Unanue and the first lady will be joined by representatives from the nation's leading Latino groups to highlight efforts to improve wellness. The event will be held at a supermarket, a lively backdrop for photos.
It may seem like a lot of fanfare for a relatively small program -- and it is. But there's more to the first lady's visit to Florida than a wellness program.
In a deft political move, her visit is scheduled between Wednesday's Univision candidate forum and Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, sponsored by CNN Espanol and the Hispanic Leadership Network.
Both Republican front-runners, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, spent Wednesday backing away from controversial statements about Latino issues and pandering to the state's largely Republican, Cuban-American population. Thursday night's debate is expected to feature more of the same.
"The Obama campaign isn't going to do anything this close to a primary date without knowing exactly what the message is," said veteran Democratic strategist Erikka Knuti, referring to Florida's Jan. 31 primary. "And the message of the first lady is more personal than what other Democratic surrogates would offer."
From a political standpoint, the first lady will offer Latino voters a symbolic alternative to the Republican contenders. On one side, there are candidates at podiums exchanging harsh rhetoric; on the other, America's mom-in-chief, who smiles and hugs and worries about wellness.
It's not just the first lady's presence that will send a message, noted Knuti. It's also her issue -- health. "Hispanic cultures tend to be matriarchal, family-oriented, and food-oriented," Knuti said. "So to have the first lady, who is also a mom, talking about fixing healthy meals for your family is going to resonate with Latino communities on more than just a political level.
"Remember, this is a constituency that hasn't had their wish list fulfilled yet by this administration -- far from it," Knuti said. "But here's a reminder that while immigration is certainly important, there are other issues too, and they can be addressed in a culturally relevant way."
After Tampa, the first lady will travel to the wealthy enclaves of Sarasota and Palm Beach, where she'll headline fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee. Next week, she will travel to Los Angeles, where she will be a guest on the "Tonight Show" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," attend two DNC fundraisers, and highlight community fresh food programs.