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Though she sometimes takes on President Bush, lamenting lives lost to "a senseless war" and noting that Barack—a former civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor— "knows the Constitution better than this administration," her stump speeches don't mention the other Democratic candidates. Nor does she talk much about policy or politics. Instead, she focuses on the causes she's championed in her professional life. "I am still living in the real world, seeing mothers and professionals and women who are really barely making it," she told me when I spoke with her in Washington. "That's got to stop. We've got to lighten the load and give people more support. I'm trying to shake people into understanding that point."

The message seems to be connecting; Michelle has quickly become one of the most valuable tools in the campaign—impressive fund-raiser, popular speaker, bridge to women and African-Americans, whose votes will be decisive. She trusts her audience to understand that what matters to her husband is what matters to her, never mind if she leaves out the Vote for Barack Obama part. Her cardinal rule of engagement is to be herself. "Anything else would be too hard, and I couldn't sustain it," she says. "If folks don't like who we really are, then they shouldn't vote for us." David Axelrod gives her an amen on that: "It's not her nature to be a political huckster out there."

She is comfortable in her own skin, if not always in her shoes, which she feels no compunction about slipping off when the mood strikes. She keeps up with celebrity gossip (Tom and Katie, Brad and Angelina) and enjoys a good margarita (straight up, with salt). Though she moves with the confidence of an athlete, her friend Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker calls her a girl's girl. She has a weakness for handbags and manicures. She's the rare woman in American politics who likes to wear a dress.

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