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U.S. first lady Michelle Obama waves before addressing the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 4, 2012.

Eric Thayer/REUTERS

First Lady Michelle Obama showed why she remains the most popular Democrat in the White House, while San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the revelation of the opening night of a Democratic convention that celebrated equal opportunity and inclusiveness.

Delegates adopted the first Democratic platform to endorse same-sex marriage on Tuesday, adding the "freedom to marry" to the list of basic civil rights the party pledges to protect. The move served to widen the chasm between the two main U.S. parties on social issues, after Republicans last week embraced a platform seeking a constitutional ban on abortion and gay marriage.

Mr. Castro, a little-known 37-year-old Texan, became the first Hispanic to deliver a Democratic keynote address, illustrating the party's desire to cement its support among a fast-growing constituency considered critical to President Barack Obama's re-election.

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Mr. Castro delighted delegates with a moving tribute to his Mexican grandmother and a playful disavowal of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Belying his studious reputation, he delivered a speech that inspired and entertained in equal measure.

"Governor Romney has undergone an extreme makeover. And it ain't pretty," Mr. Castro said, referring to the GOP nominee's vow to repeal the Democratic health-care bill despite his passage of similar legislation in Massachusetts. "So here's what we're going to say to Mitt Romney in November: We're going to say no."

Mr. Castro got high marks for surmounting the pressure that came with occupying the same speaking slot that Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, filled at the 2004 convention. But even he was outdone by the President's wife, who offered an impassioned defence of her husband's integrity and the purity of his motivations in the White House.

"I have seen firsthand that being President doesn't change who you are. No, it reveals who you are," the First Lady said. "I can honestly say that when it comes to his character and his convictions and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago."

In a dig at Mr, Romney, one of the wealthiest men to ever seek the presidency, Ms. Obama added: "For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make. It's about the difference you make in people's lives."

Mr. Obama, who will formally accept the Democratic nomination here on Thursday, enters the critical post-Labour Day stretch of the campaign with far higher favorability ratings than Mr. Romney. That made the First Lady's task on Tuesday night much lighter than the one Ann Romney faced a week ago as she sought to improve her husband's image, particularly among female voters.

Nevertheless, in an effort to solidify their party's dominance among women and minorities, Democrats spent most of the first night of their convention underscoring their commitment to abortion rights, immigration reform and same-sex marriage. They slammed Republicans for seeking to roll back gains made under Mr. Obama by women, gays and the children of illegal immigrants.

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"Women in America cannot trust Mitt Romney," charged Nancy Keenan, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, pointing to Mr. Romney's support for reversing the Supreme Court ruling that established abortion rights. "Mitt Romney would take away our power to make decisions about our lives and our future."

The emphasis on women and minorities highlighted Mr. Obama's reliance their support to help him secure a second term. While Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney by double digits among women, and 2-to-1 among Hispanics, he trails Mr. Romney by more than 20 percentage points among white men, according to Gallup.

Democrats endorsed the addition of a "marriage equality" plank in their platform in a state that voted overwhelmingly in May to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. Some in the party worried the platform and Mr. Obama's move this year to support gay marriage would hurt his chances in North Carolina this fall. The platform nevertheless condemns states that "deny equal protection of the laws to committed same-sex couples."

"No matter who you are, no matter what colour or creed, how you choose to pray or who you choose to love … you should be able to find a job that pays the bills, afford health care for your family, retire with dignity and respect and give your children the kind of education that allows them to dream even bigger," said Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, a rising Democratic star, in introducing the platform. "This is our American mission."

The convention heralded Mr. Obama's signature initiatives during his first term, with personal testimonials from people who had benefited from his health-care reform law, which guarantees free preventive care; his bailout of General Motors and Chrysler; his use of stimulus funding to keep teachers on the job; his passage of equal pay legislation for women; and his move to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The alliance between Democrats and organized labour was strained by the party's decision to hold the convention in North Carolina, a right-to-work state with only nominal union representation. Some prominent labour leaders stayed away.

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The head of the country's largest service-sector union spoke at the convention, however, warning that, as president, Mr. Romney would adhere to the same "values" that he exhibited while running private equity firm Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s.

"He loaded up companies with debt, and when they went bankrupt, he walked away with profits," charged Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. "Those are his values. And make no mistake: Those are the values he would bring to the White House."

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