Poll on presidential spouses finds an edge for Obama

Less well-known, Cindy McCain to take to TV today

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Foon Rhee
Globe Staff / June 19, 2008

One is the Ivy League-educated, outspoken spouse who draws criticism like a magnet.

The other is the very practiced, very rich second wife who keeps a lower profile.

In the battle of potential presidential spouses, Michelle Obama, despite the attacks on her, is viewed more favorably by Americans, while Cindy McCain is less well-known, according to a poll out yesterday.

Both are trying to shape voter perceptions as the general election battle between their husbands intensifies. Obama guest-hosted "The View" on ABC yesterday, presenting a warmer image than the widely circulated videos of her appearing angry. McCain is scheduled to appear today on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday, 48 percent of Americans surveyed said they see Michelle Obama favorably, compared with 39 percent for Cindy McCain. But between the two women, Obama elicited slightly more unfavorable responses - 29 percent vs. McCain's 25 percent. And while only 23 percent said they had not yet formed an opinion of Mrs. Obama, 36 percent are still undecided about Mrs. McCain.

"Going in, people saw Michelle Obama as very strong and very opinionated. They just don't know Cindy McCain at this point," said Myra Gutin, an authority on presidential spouses.

In the fall campaign, "I'm wondering if Cindy McCain will get more outspoken, and on the Democratic side whether they might want to tone Michelle Obama down a little," Gutin said yesterday.

A communications professor at Rider University in New Jersey, she is the author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century" and of a Barbara Bush biography published last month.

She said the candidate's spouse is invariably a factor when voters go to the polls in November because the candidate has chosen to spend his life with her - nearly 16 years of marriage for Michelle and Barack Obama, 28 years for John and Cindy McCain - and raise a family with her - two young daughters for the Obamas, four children for the McCains.

"It speaks to the character of the candidate," Gutin said.

The critical spotlight has trained much brighter on Obama so far.

The top item on the antismear website Barack Obama's campaign launched last week is still the rumor that his wife criticized whites using the term "whitey" from the pulpit of her church. The campaign says it never happened.

Starting her turn yesterday on "The View," Michelle Obama directly took on another recent attack, doing fist bumps with the five other hosts - a rebuke to some conservative bloggers who suggested that a fist bump with her husband after clinching the Democratic nomination was some kind of secret terrorist gesture.

"That's the new high five," Michelle Obama told the audience with a smile.

Then, she was quickly asked about saying during a February campaign appearance in Wisconsin that she was "really proud" of her country for the first time in her adult life with the success of her husband's campaign and voters' hunger for change - a remark that critics and Republicans tried to construe as somehow anti-patriotic.

"Of course I'm proud of my country. Nowhere but in America could my story be possible," Obama replied, noting that her working-class parents, who didn't go to college, sent both their children to Princeton University. (According to an advance excerpt provided by ABC News, Cindy McCain says on "Good Morning America" today: "Everyone has their own experience. I don't know why she said what she said. All I know is that I have always been proud of my country.")

Michelle Obama, a 44-year-old lawyer, said she tries to take the attacks in stride, ascribing them in part to the 24-hour news cycle of cable TV and the Internet - "I fill up some space," she said - and also to her tendency to express her feelings.

Her husband had stronger words as he defended his wife in an interview Tuesday with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"She is the best mother I know," Barack Obama said. "She has made repeated sacrifices on behalf of her family."

"The fact that people have tried to make her a target . . . I think is really distressing," he added. "I would never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue, and if I saw people doing that, I would speak out against it. And the fact that I haven't seen that from John McCain, I think is a deep disappointment."

Last month as well, Obama warned Republicans to "lay off" his wife after the Tennessee GOP posted a video critical of Michelle Obama's "proud" remark.

But Gutin said Obama is opening herself up to scrutiny because she is on the campaign trail, often separately, criticizing her husband's rivals and discussing policy. "If she's going to enter into areas that are substantive . . . it seems as if it's fair," Gutin said.

Cindy McCain, on the other hand, is mostly appearing with her husband and largely just praising him.

"She is staying within the more traditional bounds of a political wife," Gutin said.

McCain, 53, the heiress to a beer distributorship she heads in Arizona, has not been completely immune from controversy.

The Democratic National Committee criticized her for initially refusing to release her income tax returns and just yesterday faulted her for allowing her husband's campaign to use her company's corporate jet.

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