Washington (AFP) - Melania Trump put a kinder, gentler sheen on Donald Trump's reelection campaign with a star turn at the Republican convention Tuesday where she broke ranks to speak compassionately about coronavirus victims and recalled her own immigrant story in an appeal for racial harmony.
Unlike often aggressive speeches by two of Trump's children from previous marriages, Eric and Tiffany, the first lady brought a soft touch to her keynote address from the White House's Rose Garden.
The coronavirus, which has killed 178,000 Americans and wreaked economic chaos, was almost entirely ignored by other speakers -- and the president himself.
Melania Trump began by offering prayers for the "ill and suffering."
"My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one," she said.
The simple acknowledgement of the tragedy shaking the United States was a jarring change in the mood of the convention, which has mostly been a steady drumbeat of attacks on what Republicans call a "radical left" under Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
"I don't want to use this precious time to attack the other side," she said.
The 26-minute speech, which she delivered in her heavily accented English, also was remarkable for her defense of the immigrant experience and acknowledgement of soaring racial tensions -- two combustible topics that her husband is often accused of stoking for political gain.
"I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history," she said.
"I call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives," she said. "We still have so much to learn from one another."
The first lady followed a controversial speech by heavy hitting Trump supporter and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who broke with longtime tradition to campaign openly for the president while on diplomatic business in Israel.
One person who didn't address the nation on Tuesday, however, was a so-called "angel mom," Mary Ann Mendoza. She had been due to tell the story of her son's death after he was hit by a drunk driver who was in the country illegally.
Mendoza was yanked from the schedule at the last minute after it emerged that she had just retweeted an elaborate anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jews taking over the world.
'American dream' speech
The role of Mendoza had been meant to highlight Trump's relentless, hardline focus on illegal immigration, a policy at the heart of his popularity with the Republican right.
However, Melania Trump was there to try to humanize a president seen by Democrats as cruelly exploiting anti-immigrant feelings.
She recounted her arrival in the United States from Slovenia as a 26-year-old fashion model, saying she'd "always heard about an amazing place called America."
After 10 years in "the land of opportunity" she said she became a citizen, "still one of the proudest moments in my life."
Trump has made his political career in part on demonizing illegal immigrants, depicting the huge numbers of undocumented people working and sometimes living for many years in the country as a horde of rapists and murderers.
However, with Biden leading in opinion polls, the Trump campaign is seeking to claw back some of the middle ground.
Before Melania Trump spoke, the president sprung a surprise with a video played to the convention of him attending a naturalization ceremony for immigrants at the White House earlier that day.
The campaign is also hoping that Melania Trump's appearance will reach the women voters that opinion polls show are turning to Biden.
Trump, who has been dogged by more than a dozen accusations of sexual assault and harassment, as well as multiple claims of extramarital affairs, is working hard to get what he calls the "suburban housewives" on his side.
Almost daily, he warns that Democrats will bring a scary combination of violent crime and lower house prices to those women.
Melania Trump, 50, again offered a softer approach, directly addressing mothers who are worried about their children's social media habits.
And after a torrent of speculation about the state of her marriage to the billionaire -- and biting criticism of his character from other family members -- she mounted a strong defense.
"We all know Donald Trump makes no secret about how he feels," she said in a possible nod to the president's loud and often brutal way of expressing opinions on other people.
"Total honesty is what US citizens deserve," she said. "Whether you like it or not, you always know what he's thinking and that is because he's an authentic person who loves this country."