Applying a Personal Touch to the Campaign

Getting to know them: The Obamas cultivate a just-folks image.
Getting to know them: The Obamas cultivate a just-folks image. (Us Weekly)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

Barack Obama was chatting with Katrina Davis, a Missouri woman whose daughter was hospitalized with a heart ailment, when he turned the talk to the half-dozen 7-year-olds who had slept over for his daughter's birthday.

"I know Chuck E. Cheese," Obama said as a group of reporters looked on. "That's as noisy a place as there is on Earth."

In his march to the Democratic presidential nomination, the Illinois senator has demonstrated an ability to mesmerize 20,000 people in an arena, but for all his sudden fame, most voters know little about the texture of his life. Now, in ways large and small, he and his staff are trying to add some dabs of color to a gauzy portrait, using media coverage to convey the sense of a down-to-earth fellow.

Here he is on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show, chatting about how his daughters like to make pancakes with whipped cream on Sundays before they go off to church.

There he is with his wife on the cover of Us Weekly, released the same day that Michelle Obama locked arms with Barbara Walters and talked about her disdain for pantyhose on "The View."

Here he is riding his bike in a helmet and tucked-in polo shirt, joking afterward that he figured the press would portray him like Michael Dukakis "wearing that tank helmet" and that some bloggers "said I looked like Urkel."

There he is with his first general-election ad, showcasing his single mom and grandparents who "taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland."

Obama's staff says no artifice is involved. "The most extraordinary thing about him, maybe the most surprising, is how normal he is," says David Axelrod, his chief strategist. "He'll read Foreign Policy magazine, a treatise on economic policy and Sports Illustrated."

The outlines of Obama's life are well known. The son of a Kenyan father who abandoned him, he rocketed to success: Harvard Law School, best-selling author, Illinois lawmaker, freshman senator who seized the nomination from Hillary Clinton, preaching the audacity of hope to large and boisterous crowds.

But there is a less flattering side. For weeks, the most relentlessly reported fact about him was that he was a member of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. He was mocked for asking an Iowa crowd about the price of arugula at Whole Foods, a store with no outlets in the state, and for rolling gutter balls at a Pennsylvania bowling alley. As he struggled with working-class voters, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said that "his exclusive Hawaiian prep school and years in the Ivy League made him a charter member of the elite."

Obama strategists say there is no grand plan to overhaul their man's image. "Sometimes a bike ride with your family is just a bike ride with your family," says press secretary Bill Burton.

But few things are left to chance in a presidential campaign, especially media venues. "We're doing everything we can to reach voters where they are," Burton says. "A pretty small percentage of voters read The Washington Post."

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