Michelle Obama Revs Up in the Homestretch

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

AKRON, Ohio, Oct. 24 -- Michelle Obama is nearing the finish line of a race that has become her quest as much as her husband's. Once, scant dozens of people filed in to meet her in small Iowa towns. She now routinely draws thousands: in Gainesville, Fla., 11,000; in Pensacola, 7,000.

On Friday, she drew overflow crowds of 2,000 people in Columbus and here while standing in for her husband as he visited his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. Speaking without notes, she traded her favored fireside voice for a more fiery one, calling out to people to vote early, if not often.

"Races are lost on thousands of votes, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who are registered who will not vote," Obama said. "Don't wait until Election Day when it's snowing. Don't wait until Election Day when you might be sick. Don't wait until Election Day when your tire might be flat. You might not have gas then. Vote now."

Obama paused to tell audiences of her husband's decision to leave the campaign trail for 48 hours to visit Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother he calls "Toot." At a telephone bank here, Obama told a potential supporter that Dunham "is sick and may not be with us much longer."

Dunham did much to raise Barack Obama, born to an 18-year-old mother with a certain wanderlust. He credits Dunham with sacrificing for his upbringing and imparting a hardscrabble Midwestern sensibility grounded in her Kansas roots.

"He said the other night, 'You know, I got my toughness from Toot,' " Obama told the crowd in Columbus. "Because she taught him with her quiet confidence and that love and support that he could do anything," she said.

In Akron, she mentioned a conversation with a voter who described her own problems -- she went blind, she lost a son, her grandson went to war, her husband left her -- and then told Michelle that she is praying for Barack's grandmother.

"Now that's America right there," Obama said. "On behalf of my family, thank you. We will be fine."

Obama, who has been juggling roles at home and on the road since the campaign began nearly 21 months ago, recently said she enjoys campaigning more than she expected. Yet as she has traveled the country, the cheers of supporters have been mixed with challenges to her patriotism from critics, including jabs from Cindy McCain and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

It was in Wisconsin in February that Obama said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but because I think people are hungry for change." She explained later that, as someone who had felt disconnected from politics, she was pleased to see "people rolling up their sleeves in a way that I haven't seen, and really trying to figure this out."

Supporters said they understood, but the damage was done. McCain took the opportunity to declare, "Yes, I have always been proud of my country." Palin delivered a similar slam, spawning a T-shirt design that proclaims, "Always Proud."

Criticism became farce when a Fox News anchor asked whether the Obamas' congratulatory fist-bumping the night he clinched the Democratic nomination was a "terrorist fist bump."

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