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First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

POLITICAL SPOUSES

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney: Warm-up acts for their husbands Add to ...

Nowhere in the world do the spouses of political candidates play a larger role than in the United States. And while it may still seem jarring to some campaign-watchers, the first lady and the would-be first lady are central actors in this year’s presidential campaign, singing their husbands’ praises.

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Both President Barack Obama and (especially) Mitt Romney suffer from perceptions that they’re aloof, and struggle to convey a sense of warmth and to explain their own merits or accomplishments. That, it seems, is where their wives come in: both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney got prominent roles at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and they are expected to be out on the hustings through the fall. Each campaign will be asking a lot of two women who are not – in theory – politicians.

 

 

Michelle Obama

 

Humanize the candidate

Ms. Obama offered a glowing character reference of the President – a loving husband and a doting father whose essential character and convictions have not changed since he came to the White House. She described him “hunched over his desk, poring over the letters” of struggling Americans, and brought smiles to the faces of the audience with her description of the rusty old car he used to pick her up for dates when they were young.

Help sell the candidate’s achievements

Mr. Obama has said he focused too much on policy and not enough on communicating a clear narrative to the public during his first term. He should have talked things over with Ms. Obama. In her convention speech, she proved an able communicator, weaving the audience a story of how her husband set out to address the day-to-day concerns of Americans about the cost of health care and student loans, and bringing the economy back from the “brink of collapse.”

Show triumph over adversity

Ms. Obama has spoken before about her working-class roots – growing up in Chicago’s South Side with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who continued working as a city water plant worker after he was diagnosed with MS. Add to that the President’s story of being “raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills,” as she said in her speech, and she has an “up from adversity” narrative that appealed to voters four years ago and could again.

Stay above the fray

Attacking Mr. Romney personally is not Ms. Obama’s style. But, then again, she doesn’t have to. By talking about her and her husband’s personal histories, she can obliquely but clearly draw a contrast with the Romneys. As New York Times reporter Nick Confessore put it in a tweet after her convention speech: “Pretty deft: A ferocious attack on Mitt Romney disguised as a heartwarming tale about Barack Obama.”

Fire up the base

Mr. Obama has tried on the campaign trail to reignite the passion of supporters. But the President is too closely tied to the country’s economy, joblessness and a feeling that he did not fulfill his promise. His wife can help divert some of that disappointment, in large part because the weight of responsibility to sort out the country’s problems does not fall on her.

Court the female vote

Mr. Obama holds a significant advantage over his rival when it comes to the support of female voters. But in battleground states where the margin of victory will inevitably be narrow, appealing to independent female voters is going to be key. Ms. Obama could be the key to easing female voters turned off by the GOP take on social issues off the fence and back in to the Obama camp.

Work the talk-show circuit

Ms. Obama has done the Top 10 on the David Letterman show. Her No. 1 fun fact about gardening: “With enough care and effort you can grow your own Barack-oli,” she said, holding up a broccoli in the shape of the President’s head. To promote her Let’s Move initiative, she went up against another late night talk show host, Jimmy Fallon, in a potato-sack race. When she’s not making viewers chuckle, she channels clarity, thoughtfulness and emotion.

Rein in problematic instincts

Ms. Obama had a rocky start in her husband’s first presidential campaign four years ago: She was accused of being un-American after her comment that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” She worked hard to correct that image and recent polls show her favourability rating among Americans at 66 per cent, 16 points higher than her husband’s. In fact, she might be able to help some of her husband’s own problematic instincts to go off-script.

Campaign like crazy

Ms. Obama described herself as “mom-in-chief” and said: “My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the centre of my world.” Earlier this year, she informed the Obama campaign that she would be available to campaign and fund-raise three days a week and no more. When the race gets tighter and closer to voting day that rule may have to change: Ms. Obama is a formidable campaigner and seen as the President’s No. 1 surrogate.

- Affan Chowdhry

 

 

Ann Romney

 

Humanize the candidate

Few presidential candidates have had a harder time relating to voters than Mr. Romney. His wife is trying to fix that. In her convention speech, she spoke at length about her courtship by a “nervous” young Mr. Romney and about their challenges raising five children. In a recent interview she went further, describing her husband “curl[ing] up in bed beside me” at a particularly difficult moment when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Help sell the candidate’s achievements

By his wife’s account, Mr. Romney “doesn’t like to talk about how he has helped others” so she’s doing it for him. While not as explicit as some other GOP convention speakers, she highlighted both his acts of charity and professional achievements – all, of course, while he was being a great husband and dad.

Show triumph over adversity

Ms. Romney’s description of a working-class life in the early years of her marriage, eating tuna in a basement apartment, may have been a misstep given the common knowledge that both she and her husband come from wealthy families. But her battles with MS and breast cancer are the best defence against perceptions that the Romneys have had it easy, and helps show their toughness.

Stay above the fray (sort of)

There’s an art to delivering a highly political message in a way that seems just apolitical enough for opponents to avoid firing back. In her convention speech – about “love,” as she said – Ms. Romney spoke mostly about her husband, never mentioning the President by name. But she did manage to work in lines like the one that suggested Mr. Romney is only being attacked by Democrats because the past four years have been unsuccessful.

Fire up the base

There was some speculation following Ms. Romney’s speech that her reference to having a “real marriage” was a dog-whistle aimed at those opposed to same-sex unions. In any event, there was an unmistakable family-values undertone to her text. Republicans may also be hoping her wholesomeness strikes a favourable contrast for conservatives who hold a grudge against Ms. Obama for comments during the last campaign – about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life – that were portrayed as anti-American.

Court the female vote

When she broke from her text last week to holler, “Love you, women!” Ms. Romney might have gotten a bit carried away with her role in trying to whittle down the Democrats’ big advantage among female voters. Much of her speech was written as a paean to the moms of the nation, who “always have to work a little harder to make everything right.”

Work the talk-show circuit

Ms. Romney won’t thrill the Ellen DeGenereses of the world the way Ms. Obama does, but a furious blitz of sit-down interviews around the convention showed that she can make pretty good television – and allowed her to drive home the same messages as in her convention speech, in a more conversational style.

Rein in problematic instincts

Ms. Romney has a somewhat aristocratic air that, if she’s not careful, can hurt efforts to make her husband more down-to-earth. Among her challenges is to look stylish without seeming to come from an upper-class world – something most fashion types seem to think she achieved with the simple red dress she wore (despite its $1,900 price tag). She has also likely been cautioned not to be too defensive when Mr. Romney is under attack, after adding to controversy around his tax filings by saying “we’ve given you people all you need to know.”

Campaign like crazy

This is a difficult one for Ms. Romney, who has said that overexerting herself on the campaign trail has already caused a flare-up of her MS. Still, she was back at it the morning after her convention speech. Expect her to keep working the fundraising.

- Adam Radwanski

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