Her husband calls her spectacular. Her gym friends call her a gladiator. Her mother calls her often (they're very close). She' driven, determined, and not easy to impress, but also warm, wry, and unpretentious. Meet the woman Barack Obama couldn't run without.
Of all the stories I've heard about Michelle Obama, the most telling might be one about her mother, 70-year-old Marian Robinson, a tall woman with impeccable posture, a vivid smile, and excruciatingly high personal standards. On the far side of her 50th birthday, Robinson took up running. She was good, she had speed—she even competed in the national Senior Olympics—but after a fall a few years ago left her unable to hit her stride, she dropped the sport without hesitation. "If I can't do it fast, I'm not doing it," she says. "You don't run just to be running—you run to win."

The mother is evident in the daughter every time Michelle Obama, 43—Ivy League graduate and possible First Lady—works out at the gym, where she is, according to her close friend Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, "one of the women who leave you in the dust. She's a gladiator. She jumps rope 200 times without messing up. We talk in the beginning, but once the workout gets going, she is all business."

And there is this: In high school, Michelle once had a typing teacher who started the class by handing out a chart showing students what grades they could expect based on how many words per minute they typed. According to the formula, Michelle earned an A, but when the time came for grades, the teacher said she didn't give A's. Michelle was outraged: How dare she set forth the rules and then not abide by them? "She badgered and badgered that teacher," Marian says. "I finally called her and told her, 'Michelle is not going to let this go.'" Michelle 1, typing teacher 0.

No election in this country's history has featured a slate of First Spouse contenders who bring as much to the table as the partners of the current Democratic front-runners. Bill Clinton lends star power and unprecedented authority to Hillary's campaign. Elizabeth Edwards's candor and outspokenness have injected a thrilling urgency into John's presidential bid. But only Michelle Obama brings the competitive zeal of an Olympic athlete and the exacting nature of a student who would hold her teacher's feet to the fire—and prevail. For Barack Obama—the former state senator and first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, a virtual unknown until three years ago—the endorsement of this demanding, driven woman is priceless.


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