Michelle Obama to enter the midterm election fray

Sep 21 2010 - 2:53pm

LOS ANGELES -- First lady Michelle Obama will make her first foray into the midterm election cycle in mid-October, launching a series of trips that will take her to six states, ending with a California swing that will include fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is facing the toughest re-election campaign of her career.

For now the first lady's schedule is primarily focused on fundraising, partly because the first lady generally does not travel on weekends and it is difficult to schedule rallies in the middle of the work week, senior officials said. But her events are certain to draw significant public interest, and with the first lady's approval ratings outpacing her husband's by double digits, the White House clearly sees her as an effective voice for his agenda.

Sending the first lady into fiercely contested races is a risky decision for the White House.

At some level, her involvement illustrates that both the White House and Democratic leaders are worried about major losses in the Nov. 2 midterms. A number of candidates want to campaign alongside the first lady, whose approval rating stood at an enviable 66 percent in July. But by taking on a more partisan role, Michelle Obama risks undoing the progress made by White House advisers in presenting her as a non-partisan figure promoting apolitical causes: nutrition, mentoring, anti-obesity.

The rebranding has paid off: Her favorability rating climbed 20 points after the 2008 campaign. During that race, Michelle Obama was an important surrogate for her husband. Obama campaign aides admiringly called her "the closer." But she stumbled at times, notably when she asserted at one point that for the first time as an adult, she was "proud of my country."

Another complication is that many Democratic candidates are trying to avoid nationalizing the election, or making it a referendum on President Barack Obama and his policies. Aware that Obama's approval ratings have dropped off considerably, they want voters to instead focus on local issues and the differences between them and their Republican opponents. By bringing the first lady into the campaign, the White House may be undercutting that message.

Senior administration officials suggested Tuesday that the first lady's message on the campaign trail will not be overtly partisan. Her role, they said, will be similar to that of 2008 when she sought to serve as an advocate for her husband's agenda rather than to attack Republicans.

"She's campaigning to advocate, to rally voters behind specific candidates based on what we can do together to build a better future," a senior administration official said Tuesday during a call with reporters. "She comes to this as a mom, and that's the lens through which she sees the world and that's her test for every issue -- what it means for her daughters and all of our kids. One thing that she can bring perspective to, and help shine a light on is what it is that this president is fighting for and what this president is fighting for along with Democratic senators."

To that end, officials said the first lady would focus on the administration's efforts to expand the availability of loans for small businesses, make college more affordable, reform health care and boost support for military families. She will also make the argument that "the country is beginning to turn a corner in terms of strengthening the middle class," a White House official said.

The series of midweek trips will begin in mid-October with a swing through Milwaukee and Chicago for separate fundraising events for Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Alexi Giannoulias, who is running for Senate in Illinois, as well as three House members. The first lady heads to Denver for a fundraising luncheon for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet followed by a trip to New York to raise money for the DNC.

The first lady's western swing begins the week of Oct. 25 in Washington state where she will raise money for endangered Sen. Patty Murray, ending with three days in California where her aides said she will likely have public events. Boxer, who is tied in the polls with her Republican rival Carly Fiorina, joined Michelle Obama for an event in June at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where they visited with military families.

Peter Nicholas of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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