- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

PONTIAC, Mich. | The couches on stage were sleek and white. Think Dwell magazine meets Oprah’s confessional talk lair. The tone of the event was as much estrogenfest as it was campaign rally, as Michelle Obama hit the stump in Michigan Wednesday as part of two-day Midwest swing and a revamped strategy designed to soften her image and attract more female voters, a bloc much needed for her husband to win the White House.

Even Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm got in on the girlie show as they campaigned together in struggling Pontiac, Mich. Yes, Mrs. Granholm told Mrs. Obama, her state was bleeding jobs and desperate. But the economic bantering did not begin until after the two-term Democratic governor offered a gal-pal fashion compliment, telling the cheering crowd of mainly black women that while she and Mrs. Obama had something in common as Harvard Law School graduates, she would not bare her arms in public.

The women in the audience laughed knowingly as the statuesque Mrs. Obama, baring enviably chic, muscular arms in a sleeveless sheath, won them over with a roundtable discussion on parenting, family and her own American success story.

“I´m a working-class kid from a working-class community,” she said softly, touting her humble roots in South Chicago and chronicling her husband´s background as the son of a single mother whose struggles were relatable to many other women.

In Democratic circles, at least, the forthright and fashion-forward Mrs. Obama is winning fans and earning plaudits as a formidable speaker on behalf of her husband and as a style setter comparable to iconic first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Said veteran Democratic political strategist Robert Shrum, who advised Al Gore in 2000 and the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004: “In her own right, she´s one of the better speakers that I´ve heard. She has the capacity to capture people´s imaginations in a way that very few potential first ladies have. She´s an incredibly warm and charismatic person and she has lots of empathy with people and she projects that empathy. People are quite curious about her.”

But as much as she has earned magazine covers and is beloved among some women and Obama supporters, Mrs. Obama´s popularity ratings have slumped in recent months amid some criticism of her occasional campaign remarks, including one that called into question her patriotism.

An Associated Press/Yahoo poll released July 2 and conducted in late June found that while 30 percent of Americans had favorable views of Mrs. Obama, 35 percent saw her as unfavorable. A Pew Research Center poll in May found that more than one in five voters held a negative view of Mrs. Obama. By contrast, Cindy McCain, the wife of the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was viewed negatively by 10 percent of voters.

The image slide prompted changes and what political observers described in the past few weeks as a softening of her image and a change in her tone.

Some watched with skepticism as the power spouse, who earned a six-figure executive income at a Chicago hospital before stepping away to campaign full time, attempted light banter and celebrity chatter on female-friendly TV shows such as “The View.” The Obamas also allowed themselves and their two young daughters to be interviewed on camera for the celebrity gossip TV show “Access Hollywood,” a move that sparked criticism and prompted the senator from Illinois to acknowledge that it was a mistake that they would not repeat.

After the latest opinion polls were released, “the Obama camp went into crisis management mode and forced Mrs. Obama to lurch suddenly into the softer version of the candidate’s wife we’ve seen in the past several weeks,” said Cheri Jacobus, a Republican strategist and president of Capitol Strategies in Washington, D.C., who questioned whether the public makeover is genuine.

“A potential problem for the Obama campaign is that the sudden makeover of Michelle Obama, the overt exploitation of their children with an ‘Access Hollywood’ interview, and, most importantly, Barack Obama’s U-turn on Iraq and flip-flop on [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] makes this inexperienced, untested candidate appear to be void of authenticity,” she said. “Once voters decide a candidate lacks core beliefs and principles and will say or do anything for the sake of his or her political career, it can be a Herculean task to gain back their trust.”

Winning the hearts of female voters is key, said Mr. Shrum, a senior fellow in the graduate school of public service at New York University.

“Democrats have to do very well with women,” he said of this election, noting that the party historically has attracted female voters with issues that are key to them, particularly education.

Mr. Obama, for his part, is leading among women. A Gallup Poll in early June showed him ahead of Mr. McCain, 51 percent to 38 percent with female voters.

Last week, hoping to emphasize his outreach to women, he hit the stump with his former Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, whose support with female voters, particularly those who are white, was high. Mr. Obama also hired Mrs. Clinton´s former director of women´s outreach, as he expands his staff in advance of the general election in November.

Mrs. Obama, the campaign said, will fill her schedule even more as she helps her husband focus on this key demographic, leading the dialogue on issues of economic empowerment and security.

In the more personalized roundtable setting, during which she listened to heartfelt stories from Michigan women last week, she sought to assure them that her husband’s life has been keenly shaped by women, including his grandmother who raised him after his father abandoned his family.

Dubbing herself an everywoman while living as a spouse who seemingly manages to have it all, her message to female voters is that while she might appear shiny and successful, she shares the juggling, the guilt, the frustration of doing right by her family and following her own path. She knows how they feel and her husband has ideas that can help.

“As president, Barack will change our politics and change our policies to ensure that working women no longer have to choose between their kids and their careers,” she said, honing a message that seizes not only on the economy but a modern core dilemma that many women debate.

“I think that both he and she are both historic figures already in the sense that they represent a sharp departure from anything we´ve ever seen,” said Mr. Shrum, who called Mrs. Obama´s own campaign skills “superb.”

“We´ve never nominated an African-American president and we´ve never had an African-American first lady. By virtue of what they both project, they are very intriguing figures.”

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