Monday, December 17, 2007

"For the Obama campaign, the closer is in the family"

Chicago Tribune:
While her husband stumps, Michelle Obama locks in Iowa voters with a personal appeal--OTTUMWA, Iowa--In the fickle world of Iowa presidential politics, where many party activists prefer to remain neutral so they can continue to be courted, Judy Beisch had a confession to make.

"I was totally between John Edwards and Barack Obama, and you sold me," the wife of the Wapello County Democratic chairman whispered to Michelle Obama a few minutes after hearing her speak to about 100 people here.

"That's my job," Michelle Obama responded.
As much attention as Oprah Winfrey received for campaigning with Sen. Barack Obama a week ago, there is another woman in his life who is likely more central to securing votes, especially among women.

While her husband barnstorms across early-voting states, often drawing hundreds or thousands, Michelle Obama is painstakingly campaigning at a much more retail level.

With a more emotional and direct appeal than her sometimes-professorial husband, she has been assigned a critical role: Michelle Obama is the closer.

Although the senator seals the deal himself with many, his wife is often sent to follow up in towns he has recently visited. Her events typically involve no more than 100 people and offer a more intimate setting than her husband's celebrity -- and security -- allows.

Of those who attend her events, aides say, routinely a third or more sign cards pledging to support her husband.

Michelle Obama offers the same pull-on-their-heartstrings appeal and stand-by-your-man commitment that Elizabeth Edwards has brought to the campaign trail for both of her husband's presidential bids.

It is also a role once played by Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's leading Democratic rival, when she campaigned for her husband in 1992 and 1996.

'The most me'

"I do best when I'm the most me that I can be," Michelle Obama said in an interview. "That's really all I've got. If I tried to be something different or model someone, I would get confused, and it would be bad."

Her efforts to win over voters and opinion-makers sometimes happen in private.

On a recent trip to Iowa, for example, she met privately with 30 or so undecided women at a Des Moines bookstore, as well as with female executives from the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, which endorsed Clinton over the weekend.

Michelle Obama's strong-willed personality has been profiled many times over, but to watch her campaign is to understand why so many voters tell her she should be the one running for office.

Since February, she has been on the road two to four days a week, logging 15 trips to Iowa and visits to more than a third of the state's counties.

After initially dragging her feet on the idea of her husband running for president, Michelle Obama has embraced the effort.

Although both are lawyers, Michelle Obama almost certainly would be more effective in a courtroom. Her arguments are sharper -- and shorter -- and her storytelling touches closer to everyday life.

Her appeal is especially strong among women, who represent about 60 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucusgoers. Her husband's growing popularity among women likely to participate in the caucuses was a major reason he moved to the top of the most recent Iowa Poll. Some of that support can almost certainly be attributed to her.

When she talks about how fortunate she is to have her mother in Chicago to help with her children, the grandmothers in the audience, a group also highly likely to vote, often nod or smile. She mixes talks about the stresses of fixing a Thanksgiving dinner for 60, or the trials of Christmas shopping, with empathy for the challenges of average Americans.

Besides striving to convince voters her husband is decent and deserving, Michelle Obama also seeks to make her mostly white audiences in Iowa comfortable with voting for a black man. She asks them to "dream" with her what it might mean to have her husband be president.

"We're not that far off as a society," she said in the interview. "Folks in Iowa are not that different from folks on the South Side."

'If I could talk to everyone'

Michelle Obama says that if she can shake enough hands -- and give enough hugs -- her husband will win the nomination.

"If I could talk to everyone in Iowa and this country, there'd be no competition," she tells those gathered in a ballroom at the historic Hotel Ottumwa.

Later in her campaign van, she said she wants voters to know that the Obamas are relatively normal people. "I'm still going to Target and filling up the gas tank," she said.

She also makes human mistakes, like calling her husband's best-selling autobiography and policy book "novels," a word she used in Ottumwa and in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Nov. 11.

When she tours Iowa, it is not uncommon for her to visit four or five towns in a day, after rising as early as 4 a.m. to catch a chartered flight from Chicago.

Speaking to an audience at a hospital in Corydon, Iowa, she urged voters to support her husband and lobby their neighbors.

"We need you praying for us, and calling and nagging," she said. "You've got to shake them up. We need you to be there."

There is bluntness. When she met with a group of undecided women in Des Moines, one person said, she blurted: "Stop deciding already."

On the campaign trail, the response is strong, especially when she talks about family matters and trying to leave the nation in better shape for her two children.

"She's a great speaker, and she said all the right things," said Eleanor Cebuhar, a retired phone company worker from Centerville, Iowa. "A tear was starting to come."

Beisch, the Ottumwa woman who told Michelle Obama she had won over her vote, said she had seen the actual candidate three or four times, but had not connected the same way.

"She's talking about the stuff I complain about all the time," Beisch said. "It made a big impact on me."

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