The Obama campaign has a woman problem. How big? How small? It's not clear, but in a close election, small can be big.
And Michelle Obama spoke to it Monday in Chicago.
Departing from her prepared remarks, she cautioned a ballroom of applauding "Women for Obama" that despite their unwavering support, "there's a whole country out there that still needs a little convincing."
You wouldn't have known it from this mostly well-dressed, mostly well-heeled crowd. Many of the women, black and white, young and old, were early donors who gave money back when Barack Obama was a long shot, and they were gladly giving again now. A lovely lunch of organic chicken prepared by a renowned chef, Alice Waters, brought in somewhere between $400,000 and $700,000 for the Obama Victory fund.
But the women Obama needs right now are the ones who do not dine downtown. They're the ones who can't afford organic anything, forced to choose between a gallon of gas and a gallon of milk because they can't buy both on the same day.
Women like Sarah.
A few hours after leaving the "Women for Obama" luncheon, I ran into Sarah, not her real name. I've known her for a few years. A single mom, she free-lances, working as many jobs as she can to support two growing boys. She dreams of a permanent gig with benefits, but it's still just a dream.
A 37-year-old Democrat, she is also a college grad and a news junkie who has watched this campaign like a hawk. She surprised me with her anger Tuesday, saying she's voting for McCain.
To Sarah, Barack Obama is like the organic chicken at lunch. Sleek, elegant, beautifully prepared. Too cool.
Though both Obamas have spoken often and in great personal detail of their own humble beginnings, of Michelle's hardworking blue-collar dad and Barack's struggling single mom on food stamps, it somehow hasn't sold Sarah. You might ask if she was a die-hard Clinton supporter. The answer is yes, a supporter, but die-hard? Not really.
At the luncheon, I'd asked women if there was still a sizable breach between the Clinton and Obama camps.
Most told me not anymore, that on issues of choice, national health insurance and gender parity of wages, Clinton supporters know they have far more differences with Republican John McCain than they do with Obama. And Republican women, including Paula Wolff, who for 14 years was in the high command of Republican Gov. James R. Thompson, were there to demonstrate that Obama has crossover appeal, too.
"The Supreme Court," said Wolff. "I think for most women when they walk into the voting booth, that will be the first thing on their minds."
Some of the numbers bear that out. The July 15 Quinnipiac University poll shows women overall backed Obama over McCain 55 percent to 36 percent. Then again, the margin was far smaller among independent women, who preferred Obama by just three points, 45 percent to 42 percent. And finally, there's that Clinton problem. The Associated Press/Yahoo News "found that just 12 percent of former Clinton supporters say they are excited about Obama."
It seems pretty clear that if Obama is not going to pick Clinton as his running mate, he'd better not pick a woman at all. That, Sarah made clear in our conversation Tuesday, would be unfair.
The Obamas, for their part, have in recent weeks spoken warmly and respectfully of Hillary Clinton and she of them. On Monday, Mrs. Obama called Sen. Clinton an "extraordinary woman" and added she was "thrilled to welcome Dana Singiser to the campaign as our new senior adviser for women."
Singiser, who worked for Clinton's campaign and Senate office before that, told me Tuesday by phone, "We're working really hard for all women voters and leaving no stone unturned."
They may need to try offering more macaroni and cheese.