Michelle Obama in Phila.

Posted: September 25, 2008

Michelle Obama told a crowd of 3,000 in Southwest Philadelphia yesterday that if they want a president who understands what it's like to be raised by a single mother who relied at times on public assistance, they need to help their neighbors register to vote and cast their ballots for her husband.

"Don't you want a president who brings that perspective?" she asked. "This is personal, and I know that these issues are personal for so many of you because you're feeling this every day."

The crowd gathered at the Francis Meyers Recreation Center at 58th and Kingsessing, many of whom were women with children, cheered that sentiment.

This was the campaign's highest-profile event in a black Philadelphia neighborhood where Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has drawn fervent support.

In his most recent visits to the state, Barack Obama has focused on winning working-class white voters, traveling to the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton area and Lancaster.

His supporters in Southwest Philadelphia, a largely black neighborhood that has suffered a large part of the city's gun violence, said yesterday that they still would like him to come there for a visit.

But for now, Michelle Obama was more than enough.

"People are going to understand that you have to go to the places where you aren't as strong," said Clara Huggins, 59, a retired postal employee from Southwest Philadelphia. "He's doing the right thing."

Asked about Michelle Obama's visit, Huggins said: "We are just so overwhelmed and we're grateful."

To hold a rally in a neighborhood where many people are struggling to find work or keep their children safe from violence shows concern that the community doesn't see often from presidential candidates, several people at the gathering said.

"People respect that, and they appreciate that," said Steven Gordon, 36, who owns the Philly Breakfast House on Woodland Avenue. "If you haven't been through a struggle, you can't understand it. I think he understands it."

Jill Biden, wife of vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., spoke first, reminding the crowd of her own roots in Willow Grove, where she grew up.

"It was here that Joe and I had our first date, at a movie theater on Chestnut Street," she said, as the crowd teased her, yelling, "Woooo!"

Mayor Nutter also attended the rally, and asked for a moment of silence for Police Officer Patrick McDonald, who was shot and killed Tuesday in North Philadelphia.

He drew applause when he criticized the federal government, saying the Bush administration "checked out" on the city's struggles 7 1/2 years ago.

Michelle Obama focused on health care and education, saying she and her husband understand the struggles of the working class, which makes them prepared to look for solutions.

"Over the past eight years, it's really hard to see, truthfully, what progress we've made," she said. "Don't we deserve policies that reflect our realities and our values? Don't we deserve . . . leaders who understand what's happening on the ground?"

Barack Obama was in Florida yesterday. His campaign spokesmen said that he was planning a trip to Philadelphia, but that no details had been confirmed.

Tony Jackson, a lawyer with the NAACP who attended yesterday's rally, said Obama needed Philadelphia to show up big for him on Election Day. "He's going to get the black vote, but it's turnout," he said. "A couple of percentage points in turnout can make a difference."

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or jfarrell@phillynews.com.

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