Can Oprah Help Obama in Dixie?

They bonded during a flight from Chicago to Houston, musing over their odd-sounding names that begin with "O." It was a light-hearted moment between Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama during an otherwise serious mission in 2005 to comfort victims of Hurricane Katrina. "I think she saw his giving spirit and that really touched her," says Winfrey's friend, music legend Quincy Jones. "You can't fake the funk in those horrible circumstances."

There's no faking that things are a bit funky for Obama lately. The Illinois senator's numbers have improved in recent weeks—he's ahead in some Iowa polls—but he continues to trail Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and South Carolina. That's why Oprah is making a campaign swing through the three states: the hope is that her star power will attract female voters—especially black women in South Carolina, who are leaning toward Clinton, according to polls. "While Oprah's support doesn't guarantee anyone else's support, it's going to be a big turnout," says David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.

In South Carolina, Obama's skin color has been an unexpected obstacle to winning over African-Americans. "Black voters may love Obama, but they don't think white America will ever let a black man win," says the Rev. Charles Bane of New Hope Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. Just last week, Clinton scored endorsements from dozens of black ministers in the state, where nearly half the likely Democratic primary voters are African-American. "Bush's eight years have been tough on us," Bane says. "We need relief right now.''

Obama insiders believe Oprah, born in the South herself, can convince them that he's the guy to provide it. "She's never done this kind of thing before, so it's a pretty big deal for her to put her name out like this,'' says actor Hill Harper, Obama's former classmate at Harvard Law School, who's now on his campaign-finance committee. "People trust her opinion." Perhaps, but Winfrey's got a lot of work to do—starting with her good friend Quincy. "I still have to vote for Hillary this time around," Jones says. "When I think Obama is ready, I'll be right there standing next to him. But that's not this election." The old school has spoken.