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Michelle Obama's convention speech could be a defining moment

DENVER — Michelle Obama should have been transfixed, like the others watching her husband being sworn in as a United States senator. Instead, she reached for her cell phone.

"Um, why are you calling me?" answered her friend, Yvonne Davila. At the time, Davila was consumed with an epic divorce back in Chicago. Michelle Obama simply wanted to know, "Are you and the kids okay?"

Tonight, three and a half years later, Obama undoubtedly will be focused on her husband as she delivers the prime-time speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

She has a vital task in helping to shape America's view of the upstart senator who is still, after campaigning for more than a year, more famous than he is familiar.

But the speech also is a critical opportunity for Michelle Obama to define herself before voters who have been left charmed but also suspicious. Successful and opinionated, Obama has been lauded as a role model and cast as angry and un-American, an image lampooned on a recent New Yorker cover.

First ladies don't win elections, but in the high scrutiny of modern day campaigning, no figure reflects more closely on a presidential candidate than his spouse. And the uneasiness that Michelle Obama triggers in some isn't hard to find among voters.

It arose unsolicited in a recent focus group of undecided voters convened by the St. Petersburg Times.

Tom Gerhart, a 66-year-old independent voter from Riverview, said he read Obama's 1985 thesis on the racial divide at Princeton University, in which she wrote that she viewed black culture as distinct from white culture. The academic paper has been widely circulated on the Internet, and often misquoted in anonymous e-mails.

"It's scary,'' said Gerhart. "And (her comment), 'This is the first time I'm proud to be an American as an adult'? You put that on top of that paper and that's uncomfortable to me. To think she's going to be whispering in the president's ear when he's in bed. …"

In an election that confronts issues of race and gender, 44 year-old Michelle Obama must straddle both. She is eschewing the traditional role of first lady, showing herself as her own person, not merely a doting campaign wife.

In fact, she has not been so sensitive to her husband's public standing that she isn't willing to speak a little unvarnished, if playful, truth.

She has shared the story of when she first met Barack Obama at a Chicago law firm and said she thought he was a goofball, and in January 2005 when he became a senator she told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, "Maybe one day he will do something to warrant all this attention."

For more than a year, Obama has served as a character witness for her husband, joining in his call for a more hopeful nation but also revealing how he can be "snore-y and stinky" in the morning and sometimes forgets to put the butter back in the refrigerator.

Her speech tonight will explore a personal narrative, the classic American dream of a poor girl reaching high and holding on.

"It's going to be an incredible opportunity for her to be introduced to America as a warm, loving mom, a supporting wife and a professional," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a delegate at the convention. "That's a powerful combination for a first lady."

"Like all of you, and like women I've met all across this country, I play so many different roles," Obama told supporters in Chicago in July. "But most importantly, I'm a mom. My girls are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night."

Rarely does Obama go on campaign trips that keep her from going home in the evening to Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Last week, she showed up to one of their soccer games. She took the girls and friends to see the animated film Wall-E.

Friends say the devotion stems from the motivation her parents provided. The Robinsons lived in the top floor of a brick bungalow on Chicago's South Side. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father was a city pump operator who struggled with multiple sclerosis. Poor but proud, they urged the children to reach higher.

She did, getting into Princeton, then Harvard law, before returning to Chicago in 1988 to work in a prestigious law firm. Tiring of corporate life, she moved to City Hall, working in planning and development. Later she founded the local chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps affiliate that trained young people for public service. She most recently worked as an executive for the University of Chicago Medical Center.

"You look at her resume and there's nothing but achievement," said her older brother, Craig Robinson, who also went to Princeton and now coaches men's basketball at Oregon State University.

He said his sister long ago learned to rise above doubters. "That was a big lesson in our house: You can't let what other people think about you affect who you are."

On the campaign trail, Obama is a tall, graceful figure with her classic couture and omnipresent pearls. She is irreverent, intelligent and often more forceful than her husband. During the Iowa caucus this winter, she often presented a more convincing argument against continuing Republican control of the White House.

But she has been a magnet for controversy. Conservatives jumped all over her in February when she told crowds that "for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country."

She annoyed some Hillary Rodham Clinton devotees by suggesting she would not like Clinton to be her husband's running mate. Others see her as having as much sway as the former first lady did.

"Hillary was always considered, whether right or wrong, a co-president. She had a lot of influence. I see that even with Michelle Obama, and that gives me a reason not to vote for him,'' said Democrat Annette Kocsis, a 68-year-old retiree from Clearwater, who participated in the Times' focus group.

On the other hand, 37-year-old Republican Philinia Lehr of Largo, a mother of five, said she feels like she can relate to Michelle Obama.

"I like her. She shops at Target,'' Lehr said. "She portrays the same kind of lifestyle that I have. She's a soccer mom and that's basically what I am."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Michelle Obama's convention speech could be a defining moment 08/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 2:15pm]
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