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Obama's best booster or easy Republican target? Add to ...

Ever since Barack Obama launched his bid for the presidency, he has been the object of Internet-based attacks that aim to smear his name through lies and inventions.

Now they're going after his wife.

The Obama campaign yesterday dismissed a Web-based rumour that Michelle Obama had once used the word "whitey" in a diatribe from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Certain Republican-friendly blogs have been circulating the allegation, Fox News has raised it, and uber-conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh suggested on his program that a tape of the remarks exists.

"No such tape exists," the Obama camp responded, on fighthesmears.com. "Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word."

The Obama campaign launched the website yesterday to counter false accusations against Mr. Obama that are often parroted by conservative commentators, despite the absence of any evidence to support the charges.

Ms. Obama is a strong, smart, opinionated 44-year-old woman who shares many traits with her husband, and who could help, but also harm, his campaign.

The story of her rise is no less compelling than his. She and her brother Craig (now head basketball coach at Oregon State University) grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago's South Side. Her parents used fake wood panelling to subdivide the living room to create bedrooms for the children. Her father, Frasier Robinson, despite his multiple sclerosis, held down a job as a city worker, and his wife, Marian, became a secretary, after raising her children. Mr. Robinson is deceased; Ms. Robinson still lives in the apartment.

Michelle excelled as a student, ultimately attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School on scholarships and loans. The struggle of black professionals to succeed in white-dominated environments without surrendering their identity preoccupied her.

Studying at Princeton, the sociology undergraduate feared, would "likely lead to my further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure," as she wrote in her undergraduate thesis.

Ms. Obama was a successful associate at a prestigious Chicago law firm, specializing in intellectual property, when she was assigned to mentor a summer intern. But Barack Obama wanted more than a mentor; he wanted a date. Ms. Obama resisted at first - she worried that it wouldn't be appropriate, professionally, and she wasn't crazy about his big ears - but finally relented. They were married four years later in 1992.

Both were politically ambitious; Ms. Obama at one point worked in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's office; both focused on community activism. Their marriage has had its strains: at first over the student loans they struggled to pay off; then over Mr. Obama's ascending political career, which compromised hers as she struggled to balance work and looking after their two young daughters, Malia (now 9) and Natasha (now 6).

"What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first," she told the Chicago Tribune four years ago. "And for women, me is fourth, and that's not healthy."

At times, Mr. Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained.

" 'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.' " Despite the challenges, Ms. Obama developed a highly successful career, becoming a vice-president of the University of Chicago Medical Center - where, according to several accounts, she successfully finessed the politically delicate challenge of persuading low-income patients to avoid using the hospital's emergency room and to instead develop relations with family doctors.

Ms. Obama has also helped her husband's political rise. Her involvement in the mayor's office gave Mr. Obama entry to the all-powerful Chicago Democratic machine, which he in turn used to advance his own career.

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