Election 2008

Michelle Obama: Candor, Controversy on the Stump

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Michelle Obama has been called the secret edge in her husband's presidential campaign because of her charm, wit and down to earth style. But her plain speaking has also created controversy. Regardless, she's out on the stump up to four days a week. Her mission is to let voters see Illinois Sen. Barack Obama through her eyes.

She campaigned in Indiana with the state's primary just three weeks away. In the middle of a workday afternoon, hundreds of people lined up to see her at Chapel Hill Junior High School in Indianapolis. The T-shirts and campaign buttons flew off the tables set up outside the school gym. The button that showed Michelle Obama with the words "America's next first lady" was especially popular.

Kim Mills already had her outfit together. The Kokomo resident had a T-shirt that she had made showing her standing with Barack Obama in front of the Capitol. "It looks like we're chummy," she said.

Mills was part of a mixed-race crowd that was somewhat more black than white, more female than male. Many of these people left work to be here because they adore Barack Obama, and they're pretty crazy about Michelle, too. The reason for that's simple, said Mills. "She's real."

Real, maybe, but hardly average: Michelle Obama is nearly six feet tall. She is a Harvard-educated lawyer like her husband and can deliver a 40-minute speech without notes. She routinely brought the crowd to its feet, especially when she mentioned her husband.

Speaking in the school gym, Obama told supporters, "I know the only person in this race who has a chance of creating a different version of this nation and how we work together, the only person who can do that is my husband, Barack Obama."

This is part of the speech that she has been delivering for the past year, according to the campaign. But she throws in new details, depending on the current state of the race. In Indiana, she defended her husband — and herself — from the flak that came their way after Obama said that the economic frustrations of small-town Americans have left them bitter, so they "cling" to guns and religion.

"There's been a whole lot of talk about elitism," she said, "so one of my jobs is to tell you who we are and how we look at the world." She said she looks at the world from the point of view of the working-class community she grew up in on Chicago's South Side.

Every candidate's spouse plays a different role during a campaign. When Bill Clinton speaks for his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the former president goes into wonkish detail on her policy proposals, unlike Michelle Obama. Instead, Obama uses details from her life story, and her husband's, to demonstrate the need for the policies he proposes, such as help for students struggling with the high cost of college.

"Barack and I know this all too well ," she said, noting that they each borrowed money to pay for two degrees from Ivy League schools. "We are just a few years outside of paying down our student loan debt," she said, which was made possible because of her husband's two best-selling books.

Her speech offers a lot of these little behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Obama family, such as when she explains that her campaign appearances are usually day trips because she'll only stay away from her two young daughters one night a week.

Earlier in the campaign, some of Obama's efforts to humanize her family image fell flat. She was criticized for describing her husband as "snore-y and stinky" in the morning. One pundit called that "emasculating."

In February, Michelle Obama stirred up a bigger controversy when she said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country." She said she was referring to her pride in the grassroots support for her husband's campaign. But critics pounced, and Cindy McCain, wife of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, commented that she has always been proud of her country.

In the central Indiana town of Anderson, where Obama made her third speech of the day, supporter Michael Adkins said he understands the controversy. He has a friend who thinks that Obama sounds angry, for instance, but he sees it differently.

"She's stoked up for the challenge ahead," he said. "I think she's very dedicated. I don't think it's so much anger as real hope."

In Indianapolis, DeBrice Walker put it this way: Michelle Obama needs to be outspoken. "You have to be in this day and age," said Walker. "We got crazy stuff going on."

Anyway, said Walker, Michelle Obama's no more outspoken than former former first lady Hillary Clinton.



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