ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Barack Obama's wife has a heavy message for blacks in this early voting Southern state: Her husband's chances of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination may hinge more on them than they do on white voters.
Michelle Obama, 43, is especially challenging other black women, who'll be pivotal in the South Carolina primary, to consider whether they're torn between the two leading Democratic candidates because they identify with Clinton as a woman, admire her experience or loved Bill Clinton as president, or because racism has shaded their instincts.
"I know folks talk in barbershops and beauty salons, and I've heard some folks say, 'That Barack, he seems like a nice guy, but I'm not sure America's ready for a black president,' " Michelle Obama told a crowd Tuesday at historically black South Carolina State University.
"We've heard those voices before, voices that say, 'Maybe you should wait' — you know? — 'You can't do it,'" she said. "It's the bitter legacy of racism and discrimination and oppression in this country."
Her black pride message is a difficult one to calibrate, not only because overreaching could bring a backlash, but also because the campaign's national strategy hinges on whites seeing Obama as a post-racial candidate.
Blacks account for more than 670,000 registered voters in South Carolina, about a fourth of the state's voters and perhaps half of Democrats, though the state doesn't track party affiliation. Three out of five registered black voters are women, and their support is divided between Obama and Clinton, while black men prefer Obama, political analysts say.
For months, this political math has taken a backseat as Obama's campaign has obsessed over how to close Clinton's narrow lead in Iowa, the first voting state, and battled frustration over Clinton's larger leads in other states.
But recently, Clinton fumbled a debate question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and polling found more blacks in South Carolina moving toward Obama, although Clinton still leads overall. Obama also is edging past Clinton among Iowa voters, although many remain undecided.
Riding a new wave of optimism, the Obama campaign is pushing harder in South Carolina. Obama's first television ads in the state aired this week, and Michelle Obama tested the boundaries of her racial introspection approach.
Glamorous and brassy, the Illinois senator's wife, a lawyer and hospital executive who stands 5-foot-11 without heels and has a knack for lovingly cutting her husband down to size in public, delivered her in-your-face challenge to black voters with sisterly compassion.
"I know it's also about love," she said. "I know people care about Barack and our family. I know people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment and failure. I know people are proud of us.
"I'm asking you to believe in yourselves. I'm asking you to stop settling for the world as it is and to help us make the world as it should be."
Michelle Obama implored the people she met — at South Carolina State, at an Orangeburg beauty salon and at a high school in Columbia — to support her 46-year-old husband and first-term senator "not because of the color of his skin" but "because of what he has done" as a civil rights lawyer, community organizer and state lawmaker.
But at the core of her message in South Carolina is her argument that Obama, more than Clinton, former North Carolina senator John Edwards or any other presidential candidate, will do more for blacks because he understands them better.
"Ask yourselves," she admonished the crowd at South Carolina State, "who will fight to lift black men up so we don't have to keep locking them up? Who will confront racial profiling? Voter disenfranchisement?"
Todd Shaw, an assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, said that Michelle Obama "helps to reinforce the point, 'We're coming from an African-American family; our perspective is your perspective.'"
At the same time, Shaw said, she's the spouse, not the candidate, and Bill Clinton's enduring popularity with blacks may be too much for her to argue away.
Indeed, many of the voters who turned out to listen to Michelle Obama said they're still struggling with which choice feels right.
Some said that they were hoping that Michelle Obama would help them decide.
"The woman behind the scenes has a lot to do with the man who stands in front of the camera," said Phyllis Pelzer, a homemaker and Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman who prefers Obama but admires Clinton's experience and respects her accomplishments as a woman.
When Michelle Obama dropped in at Options hair salon in Orangeburg, LaVarsha Berry, 24, who works for a finance company and had her hair in rollers, was glad to meet the candidate's wife.
But after they chatted, Berry was no surer than she'd been before about a decision she considers too personal and important to try to explain.
"Right now," Berry said as she shook her head, "it's between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."