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Michelle Obama Makes Her Mark

Michelle Obama opened her stump speech at a Pennsylvania rally earlier this week with the kind of understated introduction she has used since she first hit the campaign trail.

“We’ve been a little busy for the last year or so,” she told a crowd of about 1,800 in the sleek field house at Haverford College, near Philadelphia. “I’m married to this guy who is running for president.”

Since her debut on the hustings, Obama has been a confident and self-possessed speaker. This week, she showed that the many hours spent in front of people have honed her skills — and this day she had something approaching a stand-up comic’s timing.

Her growing importance to this campaign was on display Tuesday. As her husband prepared for the next day’s debate with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), it was left to his wife to counter charges that he is elitist and out-of-touch, an assertion that has become a central issue in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary –- and in the heated contest for white, working-class voters in the state.

“Let me tell you who Barack and I are, so you’re not confused,” Obama said. While his family story is a complex one – the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, Obama was raised all over the world – hers is easier to grasp. Raised in a working-class community on the South Side of Chicago -– the daughter of a city employee and a stay-at-home mom -– Obama calls herself “the proud product of neighborhood public schools.”

Educated at Princeton and, like her husband, at Harvard Law School, she scored big points with the college students in the crowd when she asked, “When’s the last time you saw a president of the United States who just paid off his student loan debt?”

Michelle Obama emphasized the point later that day, during an appearance on the The Colbert Report, when the host Stephen Colbert asked about her “elite” upbringing. “How many silver spoons in your mouth?” he asked.

“We had four spoons,” Obama said. “Then my father got a raise at the plant and we had five spoons.”

Family has been at the core of Obama’s stump speeches since she started making them -– though the emphasis has shifted.

I first saw Michelle Obama speak at a New Hampshire Women for Obama fair at a small park in Concord in June. It was a hot, hazy Saturday, and Obama was traveling with her two young daughters, 6 and 9, and her mother.

As the girls had their faces painted and ate blue cotton candy, Obama worked the crowd of about 150. When she spoke, she was remarkably self-assured, like a veteran of 20 years on the stump rather than the rookie she was. She talked about the priority that she and her husband place on spending time with their children, and about the juggling act that she confronts every day.

“Really my life isn’t terribly different from many of the women here,” Obama said. “I wake up each morning wondering what minor miracle I’m going to have to pull off to get through my day,” she said, lamenting that it still falls largely to women to be the primary caregivers. “We are usually the ones who are scheduling babysitters, planning play dates, making sure that dentist appointments are kept.”

Despite speaking for more than 50 minutes at Haverford – one of two rallies she addressed that day — Obama didn’t mention that juggling act this week. Democratic campaign hands told me they worried that it would be hard to ask for support from voters if she appeared to be complaining, even just a bit, about her life. This week’s news that the Obamas’ household income was $4.2 million last year was another reason to avoid the every-woman pitch. The references she used to make about her husband’s everyday foibles, like leaving his dirty socks around and failing to put away the butter, are also gone.

There were other changes as well. Michelle Obama has stepped up the pace of her campaigning — from making trips once a week or so in the first months to two-to-four days a week this year. While Obama used to stay at an event until she shook every outstretched hand, and had her picture snapped by dozens of cell phone cameras, these days her movements are more controlled. At Haverford, two security guards were conspicuous, standing between her podium and the bleachers.

Obama has won plaudits from established pundits, like The Politico’s Roger Simon, who said after that June visit to New Hampshire that if her husband doesn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2008, “next time could be Michelle’s turn.”

But she has also drawn critics – most notably when she declared in February, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country. ” Conservatives charged that she had revealed a deep-seated anger at America as well as a lack of patriotism. Her words also fueled suspicions about her husband that seemed to be confirmed when their pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. said, not "God Bless America," but "God Damn America!"

National Review returned to the remarks this week with a cover story dubbed “Mrs. Grievance,” and the right-wing noise machine seems ready to depict her as the spoiled beneficiary of affirmative action should Obama win the nomination.

Despite the scrutiny, and the long-felt ambivalence about her husband’s political career – she was rarely seen on the campaign trail during his 2004 Senate race – Michelle Obama has been her husband’s most devoted, and perhaps most effective surrogate. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), a strong asset in the state, only endorsed Obama in late March and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has been far less visible presence since Feb. 5, when he failed to deliver the hoped-for effect in the California and Massachusetts primaries.

Near the end of her Haverford talk, Obama warned that it wouldn’t be easy to bring about the kind of changes in health care and education that her husband is promising. “Somebody’s going to have to give something up,” she said.

Like a church call and response, a black woman in a pale yellow jacket replied, “Somebody’s got to give it up.” And then, one more change was evident in Obama’s stump speech. Earlier in the campaign, she could often get through an entire talk without asking the crowd to support her husband – instead focusing on how women need to work together in their daily lives.

Now, with the primary race in what could be its final stages, she did not hesitate to ask for help in making Barack Obama the Democratic nominee. “The question I have for you is, can we do this? Come on, Pennsylvania! Can we do this?” she shouted. “We’re going to need you.”

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