On a cold night in a darkened middle school building on the edge of town, Michelle Obama decided to speak less as the wife of a leading candidate for president, and more as a mother.
"I'm not supposed to be here," she told a crowd of about 35 people who were clearly getting something they didn't expect from a campaign speech.
"As a black girl from the south side of Chicago, I am not supposed to be standing here and talking to you as potentially the next first lady of the United States," she said.
"I didn't want to be here. I didn't want to do this. To be honest with you, life for me would be a lot easier if my husband had never decided to run for president."
Mrs. Obama said that her first reaction to his decision was fear.
"Then I put on my mommy hat," she said.
"We have two girls, and Barack is the only person in this race who comes close to being able to get us to where we need to be as a country... to provide the kind of future I want my children to have."
Unlike her husband's recent appearance, there was no primping time, no lights, no busload of media and no jazzy soundtrack for Michelle Obama. She climbed out of van, strode to the door with purpose, and hit the podium to drop a dose of reality on the crowd.
"We are a nation that is too cynical. We are disgusted, turned off and disengaged," she says - one that has always liked to talk tough, but has lately evolved into meanness and fear.
"There is a veil of impossibility over us. We spend our time talking about what we can't do... I worry about where things will be when my girls grow up."
While her husband concentrates on the upbeat in his speeches, Mrs. Obama is passionate about what she sees as the "deep deficit of apathy" in the country.
In her 43 years, life has gotten progressively harder for working people. As a child, she said, her partially-crippled father was able to provide a small apartment for his family above an aunt's house, and put both his children through Princeton on one working-man's paycheck.
Now, it is impossible for a parent to choose to stay home and raise the children. "And I don't know how single mothers can be making it," she says.
She believes that people really expect very little from their government - to feel that they will be cared for if they get sick, to feel that they have a chance to send their children to college, and to feel that their work will be rewarded with a chance to retire with some dignity.
"Folks don't want much - just to be able to take care of their families."
Barack Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, a status that could have had them living as billionaires now. Instead, he chose civil rights advocacy, she said.
"Barack and I are just three years out from paying off our own college debts. When was the last time this country elected a president who would say that?"
Barack Obama grew up as the black son of a white single mother, sometimes living off food stamps. Gifted with many opportunities, he sees the presidency as the ultimate way to try to make a difference for others. "You don't sit on your blessings," she said, "and you don't give to people who already have more than enough, you reach out to the ones who need it."
While "everyone struggles," there is plenty of money in a wealthy nation to resolve the challenges, Mrs. Obama siad. "This stuff isn't rocket science. We all know what good schools look like, we have lots of them - but we don't have consistency... public education is deteriorating, the cost of college is growing out of reach. People can't afford to aspire to be a teacher, a nurse, a social worker."
There is a lack of character in current leadership, and the result is that the plight of the poor is largely ignored, she says. "We are measured by the weakest of us. By that measure, we should be ashamed."
She spoke briefly of the Iraq war, noting that her husband, then a candidate in a wocked seven-way race for an Illinois congressional seat, is the only leading candidate from either party to risk speaking out about the war in the beginning, when it was politically popular.
"The nation is still being told not to worry about it - to just keep on shopping," she said.
The best course for voters will be to choose the candidate who they think is most likely to bring real change, not just talk about it, Mrs. Obama adds.
"Are we really ready for something different?"
She urged Storm Lakers to caucus this week, "even those who aren't going to caucus for Obama." Voters should be suspicious of any candidate who wouldn't urge even the supporters of their opponent to do something besides sit on the sidelines, she said.
While the candidate's wife pulled no punches in her lengthy no-notes message, she took time to speak personally to every member of the audience, and in a lighthearted moment chided them for blowing a Saturday night on a political speech. If she wasn't the one speaking, she said, she would be home in bed.
As for her husband, Barack Obama gave himself two days off for Christmas, the first break since he started to campaign, and now is stumping hard until caucus night in Iowa, a state where he polls in a virtual dead heat with Clinton and Edwards.
"We are so close to being able to make some real change," she sighed.
When she climbed back into the van, she left behind a stack of campaign signs that say perhaps just what a "mommy" would want to.
In one word.