Monday, May 28, 2007

"Obama and family head through N.H.'s North Country"

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama employed his wife and young girls here on Sunday, dispatching Michlle's humor and his daughters' youth in his search of support for his presidential bid.
As Obama and his wife walked toward the cameras and the crowds, their daughters took off from the RV toward the bins of ice cream here on a town square in New Hampshire's rural North Country.

"This is a wonderful vacation for us," Michelle Obama said Sunday evening, standing under red, white and blue bunting on a wooden gazebo. "We try to turn campaigning into a family event. The only reason the girls came is because they heard about this ice cream social and they've been talking about it since we mentioned it a week ago. They got their ice cream and they're gone."

The Obamas' trip through the North Country was their first campaign swing through the early voting state with the family, including 5- and 8-year-old daughters. They brought not only added interest, but also added applause.

"I'm impressed they all came here as a family," said Yvette Leighton, a Berlin resident who brought her 12-year-old grandson to hear Obama. "Morals are low. It's good to see a family all together."

When Obama first arrived at a Conway event earlier Sunday afternoon, his arrival prompted a seven-minute rolling applause. When he mentioned wife Michelle, smiling in the second row, she brought another three minutes of standing cheers.

An audience member posed a question to Michelle Obama on Sunday night in Conway, N.H. She stood, took the microphone and answered the question with praise for her husband. That answer brought a standing ovation.

"I think maybe we should stop there," Barack Obama said.

He took one more question: How would Michelle Obama serve as first lady?

She returned to the stage, took the microphone and told her husband: "You may sit down."

The crowd roared with laughter.

"I think people need to get to know them," said Jill Davis, who stood to meet the Obamas after the Conway event. "They're great together."

It's a his-and-hers approach that has brought a mixture of praise and amusement from crowds.

After their appearances on Sunday, the couple went to different sides of the venue, shaking twice as many hands and posing for twice the pictures. The added Obamas on the trail doubled both as a personal benefit to the candidate and a political uptick for the campaign.

"I think it's an opportunity for him to remind folks that he's a family man and understand the issues involved with families and raising kids," said Mark Wrighton, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "From a practical standpoint, if you're assuming you're going to president, it's good to get the kids used to the fishbowl as early as possible."

The two Obama girls went back to their RV, guarded by the Secret Service -- and their aunt and uncle, also along with the ride.

Obama understood the stakes.

"I think I'm a pretty good father and an excellent husband," Obama told the crowd.

Berlin, one of the poorest towns in the state, is plagued by unemployment and economic hardships. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton started her New Hampshire campaign here back earlier this year. She attracted a record 500 people to that event.

Obama and his family used their trip here Sunday to repeat the campaign pitch -- an agenda for change, a stance against the war. Obama also used his family for a joke about the trip, that it was a scouting trip for future trips to mountainous New Hampshire.

"We may dump the kids, and Michelle and I just have romantic weekend some time -- with the TV cameras and the Secret Service following us," Barack Obama said.

Obama is hardly the first or only candidate to bring along young children on the campaign trail. In 2004, when Sen. John Edwards was his party's vice presidential nominee, he often brought along Jack and Emma Claire to events. As Edwards runs again, he is considering hiring a tutor for his two youngest children -- now ages 9 and 7 -- and taking them on the road full-time.

Also a day earlier, Sen. Chris Dodd brought along his two young girls, Grace and Christina.

"The flip side is the actual questions and discussion about the family is often discouraged in the campaign discourse," said Dean Spiliotes, director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "It can really benefit a candidate -- particularly a Democratic candidate who, if he gets the nomination, will be running against a Republican candidate, and the whole family-values discourse is an important part of Republican politics."

He said, though, that it sends unspoken messages that might sound hollow if given words.

"It typically provides a good visual and it sends some pretty clear, often unspoken messages about a candidate and how he or she views family life," Spiliotes said. "It can be a very potent tool, but it can also be exploitative."

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