OSKALOOSA, Iowa — "The question isn't whether he's ready."
It was midmorning on the Fourth of July when Michelle Obama issued this rhetorical challenge to a few hundred Iowans crammed inside the retro-modern, brick-and-loft Smokey Row coffeehouse.
"Because he's ready," she said. "It's whether we're ready."
"He is the real thing," she said. "Are we ready for that? Together we can turn the page; we can move into the next phase of what this country can be."
Since Sen. Barack Obama formally announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination five months ago, Michelle Obama is still testing the limits of her complex public role as her husband's biggest champion, corporate super-mom-on-leave and taskmaster who sometimes cuts the candidate down to size and keeps him grounded. She's not like other candidates' wives; she's a tall, striking, tell-it-like-it-is black woman from modest roots, with a Harvard law degree and a career as a hospital executive that's on hold for now.
They met when she was assigned to guide him through a summer job at a law firm.
She and the couple's girls — Malia, who celebrated her 9th birthday on the road last week, and Sasha, 6 — aren't staples on the campaign trail, but they sometimes function as closers of sorts in occasional appearances.
Barack Obama lets Sasha, a ball of energy, swing on his arms at events. He also helped a crowd sing "Happy Birthday" to the more reserved Malia. He announced at one stop that he'd bested one of the girls at a card game of UNO.
And he shows his wife a good dose of respect.
"I'm going to record all this," he told one crowd, after Michelle Obama had built him up, "so when I do something boneheaded at home — forget to take out the garbage — I can say, 'See, honey? I'm the real deal.' "
Obama, an on-again-off-again cigarette smoker for years, was cowed into quitting largely by his wife, who told him he could smoke or run for president, but he couldn't do both, according to a campaign aide who asked not to be named to avoid annoying his bosses. The aide said that Obama kept nicotine gum on hand.
At the coffeehouse, perched in front of the soda counter and dressed in summery outfits, the Obama women established the candidate's place in a warm, close, modern family whose members are willing to sacrifice some of their individual goals — but not all — to support his bid.
"Actually, the campaign wanted us to join them yesterday instead of just today," Michelle Obama told the crowd before introducing her husband. "So I sat the kids down and I said, 'Look, they want us to come out on Tuesday as well.'
"Well, the two of them promptly pulled out their camp calendar, looked it over seriously over the kitchen table, and said, 'Well, Tuesday is the haunted trails trip, so we won't be going to Iowa.' "
The audience laughed and applauded.
"We are doing fine as a family," she told the crowd. "That's one of the things that people want to know most from me as the wife of the candidate: How are we holding up? We're doing our best to keep our kids first. Our view is that if our children aren't sane and whole and focused, then we can't represent that to the rest of the country."
Later, a handler took the girls to play in a nearby park and pet a puppy while their mom worked the coffeehouse with handshakes, hugs and autographs.
Some of the women who meet her say she adds to her husband's credibility. "She matters to me very much," said Lesa Nuri, 53, an office manager at a restaurant, who has children and no health insurance. "Mrs. Obama and the senator are real people. I trust that they know exactly what it is to struggle and overcome."
Barack Obama tells crowds that his wife is "too smart to run for president," a laugh line she tolerates because of what he says next: "She would rather tell the president what to do."