TELLS BLACK WOMEN NOT TO BE AFRAID TO VOTE FOR HIM--Barack Obama's wife has a message for blacks in this early voting Southern state: Her husband's chances of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination may hinge more on them than they do on white voters.
Michelle Obama, 43, is especially challenging other black women, who'll be pivotal in the South Carolina primary, to consider whether they're torn between the two leading Democratic candidates because they identify with Clinton as a woman, admire her experience or loved Bill Clinton as president, or because racism has shaded their instincts.
"I know folks talk in barbershops and beauty salons, and I've heard some folks say, 'That Barack, he seems like a nice guy, but I'm not sure America's ready for a black president,'" Michelle Obama told a crowd Tuesday at historically black South Carolina State University.
"We've heard those voices before, voices that say, 'Maybe you should wait' -- you know? -- 'You can't do it,'" she said. "It's the bitter legacy of racism and discrimination and oppression in this country."
Her black pride message is a difficult one to calibrate, not only because overreaching could bring a backlash, but also because the campaign's national strategy hinges on whites seeing Obama as a post-racial candidate.
Blacks account for more than 670,000 registered voters in South Carolina, about a fourth of the state's voters and perhaps half of Democrats, though the state doesn't track party affiliation.
For months, this political math has taken a backseat as Obama's campaign has obsessed over how to close Clinton's narrow lead in Iowa, the first voting state, and battled frustration over Clinton's larger leads in other states.
But Clinton fumbled a debate question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and polling found more blacks in South Carolina moving toward Obama, although Clinton still leads overall.
Riding a new wave of optimism, the Obama campaign is pushing harder in South Carolina. Obama's first television ads in the state aired this week, and Michelle Obama tested the boundaries of her racial introspection approach.
The Illinois senator's wife, a lawyer and hospital executive, delivered her in-your-face challenge to black voters with sisterly compassion.
"I know it's also about love," she said. "I know people care about Barack and our family. I know people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment and failure. I know people are proud of us.
"I'm asking you to believe in yourselves. I'm asking you to stop settling for the world as it is and to help us make the world as it should be."
Michelle Obama implored the people she met -- at South Carolina State, at an Orangeburg beauty salon and at a high school in Columbia -- to support her 46-year-old husband and first-term senator "not because of the color of his skin" but "because of what he has done" as a civil rights lawyer, community organizer and state lawmaker.
But at the core of her message in South Carolina is her argument that Obama, more than Clinton, former North Carolina senator John Edwards or any other presidential candidate, will do more for blacks because he understands them better.
"Ask yourselves," she admonished the crowd at South Carolina State, "who will fight to lift black men up so we don't have to keep locking them up? Who will confront racial profiling? Voter disenfranchisement?"