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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, chants "Yes we can" in Salt Lake City. Sen. Obama canceled a Saturday Utah campaign stop in deference to the funeral of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

The wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama called on Utahns Monday to "set aside fear and cynicism and embrace hope" when they vote in today's presidential primary.

After delivering a nearly hourlong speech to some 1,000 supporters, Michelle Obama met with two apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before heading on to campaign stops in Arizona and New Mexico.

The LDS Church issued a statement afterward, saying that, "Although the church is neutral in party politics, it is common for political and government leaders to pay brief calls on church leadership. The half-hour meeting focused mostly on family values."

Utah Democratic Party chairman Wayne Holland said the meeting helps counter the perception that Mormons uniformly support GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a member of the LDS Church. "I think it sends a great message," Holland said.

Michelle Obama met with Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve. She also met earlier Monday with Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, who rode with her from the airport.

In her speech at the Salt Palace, Michelle Obama said the election "is about our souls. ... I'm supporting Barack Obama because I think he's the only one who can help us heal. And I believe inspiration is critical."

Acknowledging a number of young children in the audience, she said the race is about their future as well as that of her own two daughters. She said her husband, an Illinois senator, will bring hope to children "suffering under the veil of impossibility."

James Green, a retired state employee from Salt Lake City, said Barack Obama "just seems to be the thing we've been waiting for a long time to come along since John F. Kennedy." And, Green said, being able to vote for a fellow black man for president "means a lot to me."

Alana Robison said she'd voted for President Bush in 2000 but now backs Obama. "I think he's going to change America and bring us together," she said, adding that her father, a Utah County Republican, was leaning toward voting for Obama, too.

"He's the hardest-core Republican ever, and he said, 'I think I could get behind this Barack Obama.' It just blew my mind," said Robison, an employee of the Utah Office of Tourism and a Salt Lake resident.

In today's Democratic primary, 1,681 delegates are up for grabs nationwide, including 29 in Utah.

While his wife was winning the hearts of many Utahns, the candidate himself held a major rally in East Rutherford, N.J., across the Hudson River from Hillary Clinton's home state of New York.

"We have a real choice to make," Obama said at the Izod Center in the Meadowlands, where he filled about a third of the seats for a rally where he appeared with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the New York Times reported. "It is a choice, not between black and white, not between genders and regions or religions, but a choice between the past and the future. And if I'm running against John McCain, I want to be making the argument for the future, not for the past. I want to be going forwards, not backwards."

Originally, it was Obama himself who was going to campaign in Utah. But he canceled plans to hold a rally in Salt Lake City last Saturday after the funeral for the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was set for the same day. Just days before President Hinckley's death on Jan. 27, a meeting between Barack Obama and the LDS Church's First Presidency was scheduled during what would have been the candidate's second visit to the Beehive State. Several hundred Utahns turned out last August to hear Obama speak at a hastily organized rally held outside Park City, where later that day he collected some $250,000 at a private fundraiser.

Clinton vied for Utahns' attention Monday night by answering questions from voters in 22 states via a satellite town hall event broadcast on the Hallmark Channel and on the senator's Web site, where visitors submitted more than 50,000 questions.

Clinton spoke on topics from gay marriage ("a decision best left to the states") to universal health care ("the morally right thing to do, the economical thing to do").

With each response, applause filled the Salt Lake City Council Chambers, where about 60 people gathered to hear the candidate speak.

A nervous Breanne Miller, a University of Utah law student with a Spanish degree, asked the senator how she planned to balance national security with immigration issues.

"We can be faithful to our immigrant heritage and respect the rule of law," Clinton responded. "We need to tighten border security, ... but we also need to bring people out of the shadows and register them."

Miller, who had decided to vote for Clinton prior to Monday's event, said the response reaffirmed her decision.

Earlier in the day, Clinton took aim at Obama during a rally held in Worcester, Mass. "You know, change is hard," she said, in a swipe at Obama's frequent campaign message, the Associated Press reported. "I wish all you had to do was just say it's going to happen and it'll materialize. But it's going to take hard work. It's going to take every one of us."

The latest Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows Obama leading Clinton 53 percent to 29 percent among Utah Democrats likely to vote in today's primary.

The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Jan. 28-31, also found that a majority of Utahns have a high interest in today's presidential primary. Only 3 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they had a low interest in the election.

Contributing: Aaron Falk

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com