First lady to stump for Democrats in October

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 5:24 PM

Finally, congressional Democrats will get something they've been asking for.

First lady Michelle Obama will hit the campaign trail starting next month, and she'll focus on raising money for a handful of Democrats in tight reelection battles in blue states.

The first lady's entrance into the campaign fray comes at a crucial time for Democrats, whose chances of retaining control of the House may be narrowing and who are struggling to reengage a dispirited base. Independents are also poised to pull the lever for Republicans in November, according to recent polls.

White House aides said that Obama could raise $20 million for the party, boosting the Democrats' money edge and the airwave and ground games of candidates as the election nears and races tighten.

Obama's schedule, which kicks of Oct. 23, will take her to Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, New York, Washington state and California, and it provides a window onto Democrats' declining fortunes in states that went big for Barack Obama in 2008. It also shows that when it comes to some Democrats, Michelle Obama is the couple's better half. Her first campaign event is for Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who was a no-show when the president made a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee. Feingold, a big backer of Obama in 2008, is down by about five points in the latest polls.

According to an Washington Post/ABC News poll, the first lady could make a difference with women and minorities, two groups who have to go blue in big numbers for the Democrats to have a chance of maintaining their majorities. Forty-three percent of female Democrats say they would be more likely to support a candidate backed by the first lady, as did 39 percent of minority Democrats.

Still, among all voters in the six states Obama plans to visit, 23 percent said they would be more likely to cast a ballot for a candidate Obama supports, while an equivalent 24 percent said they would be more apt to oppose such a candidate. And most of those voters - 52 percent in the Post-ABC poll - said that if the first lady campaigns in their districts it wouldn't sway them one way or the other.

Congressional Democrats have been asking the White House to deploy the first lady since the summer, and over recent weeks, the prospects of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) keeping the gavel after November have dimmed. The Democrats' hold on the Senate appears slightly stronger.

Obama will try to help Democrats maintain her husband's former U.S. Senate seat by headlining a fundraiser for Alexi Giannoulias and a slate of other Illinois candidates. She will stump for Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) - all locked in dead-heat races. She'll also headline a fundraiser for Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in San Francisco. The DCCC ended August with $39 million on hand.

The first lady signed off on the final plans Friday, after weeks of back and forth with the West Wing, an aide said. She will stick to her two-to-three-day work week, with no weekends, and hew closely to the traditional first lady campaign playbook: praise for the candidate and the administration's agenda, which will include mention of her own healthy-living platform, and no mudslinging.

"She's campaigning to advocate, to rally voters behind specific candidates based on what we can do together to build a better future," said Stephanie Cutter, a White House aide. "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."

Well known in the East and West wings is that Obama felt ill-served during the 2008 campaign, and aides said that this time Obama pressed West Wing aides for a well-honed strategy that dovetailed with her schedule, interests and the party's needs.

Aides stressed that Obama is eager to help her party. But it will be a return to a role that she has avoided for the past 19 months in Washington, and it is not without risk. A higher, more political profile chips away at the bipartisan, apolitical brand she has carefully crafted and could make her a target for Democrats' foes - Glenn Beck has recently criticized the first lady's healthful-eating initiative.

"Michelle is a realist; she understands that part of the nature of politics these days is that you are out there on a tightrope and the nature of the press is often unfair and critical," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser. "But she also recognized that stakes are very high, and it's important for her husband to have a Congress with whom he can work."

Obama follows in the tradition of modern first ladies who campaigned in midterm elections, the gold standard being Laura Bush, who hit the trail vigorously in 2006, though the GOP still lost big.

East Wing aides said the first lady will likely add more rally-style events to her schedule in the coming weeks.

With Democrats facing a strengthening headwind this November, the decision to deploy the first lady wasn't a matter of if, but when. Asked by The Washington Post last spring about whether politicians always have a worst-case-scenario in mind, the first lady said:

"I think every single one of us in the East Wing lives the devil's advocate. You're always wondering: What could go wrong?"

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