New to Campaigning, but No Longer a Novice
AKRON, Ohio — On a visit to her husband’s campaign office here the other day, Michelle Obama was handed a phone and a script of talking points and made calls to a few undecided voters. Mrs. Obama mixed policy on taxes and health care with chitchat about Ohio, laughter about her life in politics and tidbits about her family.
After a couple of calls, she realized that she had not been following the typewritten notes. “I didn’t look at the script,” she said, speaking more to herself than to the volunteers on the phones next to her.
But no matter. While some of Senator Barack Obama’s advisers once viewed Mrs. Obama as an unpredictable force who sometimes spoke her mind a little too much, she is now regarded within the campaign as a disciplined and effective advocate for her husband. She has also, advisers believe, gone a long way toward addressing her greatest unstated challenge: making more voters comfortable with the idea of a black first lady.
Mrs. Obama and her aides have carefully chosen her appearances on the national stage this fall, mostly selecting high-profile venues that are politically safe. Joking Monday night with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” she told of her older daughter’s ordering Mr. Obama not to “mess with my TV” regarding his 30-minute commercial on Wednesday night, which will pre-empt some shows. She also expressed some sympathy for Gov. Sarah Palin over the recent wardrobe controversy, while noting that the Obamas bought their own clothes.
By the standards of a national political campaign, Mrs. Obama does maintain a somewhat limited schedule. (She has stumped outside Chicago on 20 of the 57 days since Labor Day, the traditional start of the fall election season.) Most of the time she is at home taking care of the couple’s 10- and 7-year-old daughters, a choice that advisers hope will pay dividends among women of all races who can relate to her priorities.
But when she is at political events — occasionally with Mr. Obama, though much more often on her own — she is drawing large crowds, speaking with new confidence and generally avoiding gaffes as she confronts one of the trickiest tasks in the campaign. Many voters view first families as symbols of the nation, and Mrs. Obama is selling a package that for large numbers of Americans poses a real change.
Addressing a raucous rally in a gym here on Friday, Mrs. Obama had the crowd — a mix of a few thousand black and white voters — laughing and cheering throughout.
“So many precious little babies like that one!” she said after noticing one infant near the stage. “Just completely delicious!”
The audience roared with delight. And many clapped, too, when she said: “I also come here as a mother; that is my primary title, mom in chief. My girls are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. When people ask me how I’m doing, I say, ‘I’m only as good as my most sad child.’ ”
In one sign of the campaign’s confidence in her, Mrs. Obama is being deployed where it matters most. Since Labor Day, she has spent three days campaigning in Florida and two days each in Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as days in other swing states (sometimes two in a day).
She usually holds rallies (her biggest was with 11,000 people in Gainesville, Fla., last week) or small round tables on the needs of working women and military families, the two groups she speaks about the most. On Saturday, she delivered the Democratic Party’s weekly radio address, urging her husband’s supporters to turn out on Election Day.
As first lady, Obama advisers say, Mrs. Obama would focus first on her family and then on the issues facing women and military spouses as those groups deal with the economic crisis and the return of troops from Iraq. She also plans to take up national service as an issue, aides say. She will not have a major policy role, they say, and does not plan to have an office in the West Wing.
Advisers to the spouses of past Democratic nominees — Teresa Heinz Kerry in 2004, Tipper Gore in 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992 — say they spent more time campaigning in the fall than has Mrs. Obama. All their children were older, however, and Mrs. Kerry and Mrs. Clinton were often sent to secondary media markets, because they were unpopular with some undecided voters and independents.
Chris Lehane, an adviser and spokesman for the Gore campaign, said Mrs. Gore traveled constantly in the fall of 2000, and he described a somewhat larger traveling retinue than Mrs. Obama has. (She is accompanied by a handful of aides and a Secret Service contingent, but there is no press corps on her plane.)
Echoing private comments of some Obama advisers, Mr. Lehane said he believed that the Obama campaign had been unsure at first about Mrs. Obama’s potential appeal, in part because of some early missteps and in part because of the novelty of a black woman’s auditioning for the role of first lady.