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First lady Michelle Obama visits North Carolina

Martha Waggoner

First lady Michelle Obama met with several military families in North Carolina on Friday, chatting about their children's grades and eating habits before heading off for other duties.

At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Obama was greeted by Bianca Strzalkowski of Camp Lejeune, who was the 2011 military spouse of the year in Military Spouse magazine. The first lady then walked along a rope and shook hands and chatted with other military families.

"After a decade of war, we need people like her fighting for us," Strzalkowski said of the Joining Forces project that Obama and Jill Biden started to help military families. "We have an entire new generation of young war widows and wounded warriors and as we draw down forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, we need to build up these programs."

Strzalkowski, was accompanied by her three children and her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Ron Strzalkowski, started a military spouse education initiative to expand educational opportunities for her peers. She said Obama invited her to meet with the first lady at the White House to discuss her project in more detail.

"I think of her as a role model," Strzalkowski said. "She's balancing being a mom, her husband's very demanding job and traveling around getting to know the stories of the entire, diverse military community. She's very relatable to me and all the military spouses in all that she's balancing."

Susan Reynolds, whose husband is an airman stationed at Fort Bragg, was relieved that her 18-month-old son Ian didn't cry while Obama spoke with them and signed her autograph. Her pen didn't work, however, and Obama signaled to an aide to bring another one so she could sign the copy of the U.S. Constitution that Reynolds always carries with her.

"My pen got stage fright," she said.

Later in Raleigh, Obama appeared before about 600 people at a packed fundraising luncheon to benefit her husband's presidential campaign, according to a press pool report. Among those in attendance were North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

She received her loudest standing ovation from the mostly female audience when she mentioned her husband signing into the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act of 2009, extending the statute of limitation for filing equal-pay lawsuits.

"This is a president who watched his own grandmother, a woman who with a high school education who worked her way up, to become a vice president of a community bank, and she worked hard, and was good at what she did, but like so many women of her generation, she hit that glass ceiling," Obama said. "So for Barack, this issue is not abstract."

In Charlotte, she promoted the "Let's Move!" fitness program with children before the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.

After the first women's tournament game, Obama walked to midcourt and addressed the crowd. She touted basketball as a way to keep active.

"We need them to be the next generation to handle challenges," she said.

Obama and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., then took part as students from two Charlotte elementary schools competed in a relay. The students had to run the length of the court, jump rope, and then Obama and Hagan tossed them basketballs before taking shots. Afterward, Obama hugged some of the children.

Obama also planned to speak at two Democratic events in Charlotte.

North Carolina is a crucial state in President Barack Obama's re-election strategy. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden visited Davidson County Community College, and the president is visiting Charlotte on Wednesday.

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Mitch Weiss reported from Charlotte.

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at: http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

The Associated Press