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The Sweep: 'Reluctant warrior' Michelle Obama dives into midterms

By Ed Henry, Senior White House Correspondent
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First lady stumps in battleground states
  • Unlike her husband, Michelle Obama can pick and choose which issues to tackle
  • As the most popular Obama, she's diving headfirst into the campaign season
  • There are concerns her image will be tarnished by entering the political fray at this stage
  • Events in final sprint will showcase her as "mom in chief"

Editor's note: In "The Sweep," CNN dives deep into issues making news and explores why they're in the headlines.

Chicago, Illinois (CNN) -- With his party's control of Congress teetering on the brink of disaster, an unpopular president decides in the final days to roll out his best asset: his wife, whose own approval ratings soar 20 percentage points higher than his.

And she graciously agrees to take one for the team, stumping for candidates in this city and at stops all across the country despite her aversion to the rough and tumble of campaigns.

"You know, politics really is a family business," the first lady says at a fundraising luncheon in Illinois. "Everyone gets involved, whether they want to or not. It's just a fact of life."

Michelle Obama in 2010?

Nope, it was Laura Bush who campaigned here four years ago for a House GOP candidate as part of a few dozen political events she did that summer and autumn. Her tireless efforts, however, were not enough for President Bush. Democrats took control of Congress and hijacked the agenda for Bush's final two years in office.

Michelle Obama is also diving in headfirst because quite simply she has emerged as the most popular Obama. Unlike her husband, she can pick and choose which issues she wants to tackle, and her wildly popular initiatives of promoting healthy eating and standing up for military families has given her an eye-popping 65 percent approval rating in a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll.

She just landed in the No. 1 spot of Forbes magazine's list of the 100 most powerful women, which is why senior administration officials confide that Democratic candidates have been beating down the White House's door for months begging for an appearance from the first lady, who has become the gold standard for a party in need of a last-minute boost.

"She is an invaluable asset to this White House," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who noted that Michelle Obama was effective in the 2008 campaign, telling her personal story about growing up on the South Side of Chicago as the daughter of a dad who had a blue-collar job at the city waterworks and battled multiple sclerosis.

"And I think she will tell that story and what the administration and some of these candidates have been able to do to help the families that they represent," Gibbs said. "I think she'll ... go out and have a very affirmative case for coming out and participating in this very important election. I think she's, like I said, she's an invaluable asset, and my guess is we'll get good response out there on the campaign trail."

But there are now questions about whether her brand, enhanced by the fact that she has been careful to stay out of politics, will be tarnished by entering the fray at this critical stage.

They viewed her as nonpolitical and nonpartisan ... I don't know how this will affect that.
--Author Liza Mundy

Liza Mundy, a reporter for The Washington Post who wrote the book "Michelle: A Biography," said the first lady has won support even from Republican women for focusing so intently on her family and a handful of substantive issues.

"They viewed her as nonpolitical and nonpartisan," Mundy said. "I don't know how this will affect that."

Obama's dramatic entry to one of the most hotly contested midterm elections in history begins Wednesday with fundraisers in her hometown as well as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, followed by a series of other campaign events in the final three-week sprint that will showcase her as a "mom in chief" fighting for her husband in a not-so-subtle appeal to female voters.

"This isn't something I do very often," Michelle Obama will say at the Democratic fundraising events, according to excerpts provided in advance by her office. "In fact, I haven't really done it since a little campaign you might remember a couple of years ago. As a self-described mom in chief, my first priority in the White House has been making sure that my girls are happy and healthy and adjusting to this new life. Like every parent I know, my children are the center of my world. My hopes for their future are at the heart of every single thing I do. And that's really why I'm here today."

It's déjà vu for Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush, who remembers the previous first lady also being cautious about dipping her toes in the political waters but eventually realizing that she could be one of her husband's most effective advocates at the times of his greatest political need.

"I think first ladies can be reluctant warriors on the political battlefield," said McBride, now a professor at American University who still advises Mrs. Bush, in a telephone interview. "But going into this role as first lady you're automatically a political partner of your husband, whether you like it or not. So you have a responsibility to get out there and help the party he leads."

McBride said there was an evolution in Mrs. Bush's thinking: In 2002, she did about a half-dozen fundraisers for Republicans, then she upped the ante with far more appearances during her husband's 2004 re-election campaign, culminating in more than 50 political events for the Republican National Committee and individual candidates in the final midterm election during the Bush administration.

"By 2006, she did everything she could and more," recalled McBride, adding of the Obama administration: "You're definitely going to bring out your best surrogates."

Advisers to Michelle Obama said that Bush's 2002 template is the right comparison to the current first lady's because she is planning to do only a handful of events over the next three weeks. There will be fundraising events Wednesday in Wisconsin for Sen. Russ Feingold, who is trailing Republican Ron Johnson in recent polls in a difficult race that has national Democrats nervous. Then she'll dive into the battle for her husband's former Senate seat in Illinois.

She'll hold a fundraiser in Chicago for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic Senate nominee locked in a dead heat with Republican Mark Kirk. It will be followed by a fundraising event in the city for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to benefit three House Democratic candidates: Reps. Dan Seals and Debbie Halvorson, and Bill Foster, who is challenging a Republican lawmaker.

"It's very helpful," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the committee. "It energizes the base because she is someone that activists and donors want to see."

But party officials will only get the first lady in small doses. After Wednesday's events, she will head to Denver, Colorado, to headline a fundraising luncheon for Sen. Michael Bennet before heading home to Washington to be with daughters Sasha and Malia.

"She was very careful not to travel or be away from home very much -- often she did day trips or just one night away," author Mundy said of Obama's pattern in the 2008 campaign. "It was certainly billed as a work-life balance issue."

That viewpoint helps Obama connect with women around the country, which is why even as she launches this new venture she will highlight her role as a mother above all else, according to the excerpts the White House chose to release in advance of this foray.

"You see, more than anything else, I come at this as a mom," she says. "When I think about the issues facing our nation, I think about what it means for my girls ... and I think about what it means for the world we're leaving for them and for all our children. As I travel around this country, and look into the eyes of every single child I meet, I see what's at stake."

It's a case her husband has been trying to make for months all across the country. But like any president, he is a flawed messenger because of the sheer weight of his job and the slings and arrows that come with it. In short, it's hard to break though with a positive message when the country is suffering through 9.6 percent unemployment and eager to blame the party in power.

While Mrs. Obama's run as first lady has not come without stumbles -- her summer vacation at a ritzy resort in Spain in the middle of a recession was a public relations disaster -- like many of her predecessors she has been able to win accolades without suffering from any of the baggage of being commander in chief.

"A president has every single problem come to their desk, and you really have to take responsibility," said McBride, the ex-Laura Bush aide. "A first lady gets to pick and choose what she wants to get involved in, and they're not responsible for everything that goes right and wrong."

Historians note that nearly half of America's first ladies didn't even have the right to vote for their husbands, let alone serve as their most visible advocates. But long gone are the days of the 1950s, when Mamie Eisenhower famously said: "Ike runs the country, I turn the lamb chops."

Fast forward to now, when the Obamas will even be campaigning in tandem Sunday at a major rally in Ohio. Then Mrs. Obama heads back on the road solo the next day to help raise money for Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Connecticut.

The following week, in the absolute final stretch of the campaign, she will be going to bat for female Democrats in two of the most closely watched Senate races in the country: headlining an event in Seattle, Washington, for Sen. Patty Murray and then a series of events for Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California.

Joel Johnson, a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, saw up close how Hillary Clinton was "used to very good effect" on the campaign trail for her husband long before she became a candidate for the Senate. He said Mrs. Obama can be just as pivotal.

"If I were a member [of Congress] and I had my pick of anyone in the administration standing next to me it would be her," said Johnson, a lobbyist at the Glover Park Group. "I would want her even more than the president, largely because of the accountability he has to deal with. In almost every city she appeals to women, independents and young people."

Johnson does caution that the fact that Mrs. Obama "has not been engaged in politics has done a lot to enhance her saliency" in the public's eye and that could suffer if she gets too drawn in to the midterm campaign.

"The tricky part is that with your obligation to politics there's the possibility that some of your good standing erodes a bit when you're back in the political fray," Johnson said. "But I think it's worth the quote unquote risk."

After all, Johnson noted, "She will now be fighting for the very things she and her husband fought for in the campaign" on issues ranging from the health care overall to the economy and she won't be delivering negative attacks. "They're going to play to her strengths and not cast her in the role of political combatant."

Indeed, Gibbs stressed the first lady will have a positive message: "You'll see her make a very positive case for these candidates and not get involved in the back-and-forth of normal political campaigns."

There's a clear payoff for Democratic candidates, and Obama will also get even more attention for her pet causes along the way. But McBride suggests there's one other major factor in the calculation that has little to do with politics and more to do with the simple task of helping a spouse at a critical time.

"At the end of the day, do you want to be faulted for not doing everything you could?" she asked. "It doesn't surprise me at all she'll get out and do whatever she can."

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