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She knows how to get a laugh on stage, how to fire up a room, how to hammer home a point. She is utterly unflustered when a crowd mobs her after she speaks. I've seen her linger for more than an hour, handing out those hugs, smiling as supporters squeeze close, wrapping an arm around their shoulders as others move in to snap photos with cell phones and ask for autographs. Much of her appeal is based on how regular she seems—just one of the moms on the sidelines of a soccer game, talking about weekend plans and lining up carpool duties. And yet she conducts herself with a poise that makes me think she was destined for this life long before she met the big–eared cute guy.

After lunch at the Baptist church in South Carolina, she was driven a few miles down the road to a community center in Greenville, a cinder block oasis of after-school music and sports for children from nearby housing projects. There were no television cameras or local reporters—just a few dozen kids and their parents, and staff members eager to show off their charges. Yet it was the kind of campaign stop that reminded me of the way a single person—a gifted student, a special teacher, a dedicated politician—can change lives.

"Nice to meet you, First Lady," said a member of the chorus who welcomed her with a song as he rushed forward to shake her hand. She walked through the gym (where basketballs were flying through the air) and the cafeteria (where cheese crackers and oatmeal cream pies were ready for snack time) and into a windowless dance studio, where she quickly jumped into a salsa lesson, hips and all.

But the real Michelle Obama moment came in a small conference room, where she perched on the edge of a chair and worked hard to get a conversation going with a dozen girls who wanted to meet her. "What's going on?" she said. "What are you all doing here? How is school going?"

"Good," they said in tentative unison.

"What does 'good' mean?"

"We passed."

"Does everybody here want to go to college?" She looked around the room, at an empty bulletin board leaning against one yellow wall, a ragged magazine rack against another. "What do you think it's going to take to get from here to college?"

The girls mumbled about getting good grades and making good choices, and slowly loosened up, asking what she had wanted to be when she was little (a pediatrician, but she didn't do well enough in math and science) and if she'd had to deal with bullies (not much). After about 15 minutes, though, the questions and answers stopped coming, their tween reticence winning out.

"All right, we're losing energy here," Michelle declared, suddenly slapping her hand on the table. A campaign aide quickly declared that it was time to continue her tour. But then Michelle decided she had a little more to say.

"You've got to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. All right?" she told the girls with sudden sternness. "Trust me, I was right where you guys are. I grew up in the same kind of neighborhood. The thing that made me different from a lot of other kids who didn't have opportunities was that I tried new stuff and I wasn't afraid to be uncomfortable. You guys have got to do that, because the things you want in life will not get handed to you. There is a lot of opportunity out there. But you've got to want it."

If there was any doubt that Michelle wanted it, it's vanished. Like her mother, she is running to win.

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