On the Trail, Spouses' Roles Evolve

A Blossoming Mrs. Obama And a Reined-In Mr. Clinton Refine Their Approaches

Former president Bill Clinton stumped for his wife in Carlisle, Iowa on Dec. 30, 2007. Video by Jacqueline Refo/
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

HOUSTON -- Bill Clinton has not turned belligerent or angry in front of television cameras for weeks now. No controversial statements, few interviews with the media, just one vote-hunting event after another -- precisely the way his wife's campaign wants it.

Michelle Obama drew unwanted attention to her husband a little more than a week ago when she said that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country." But she brushed aside charges that she isn't a patriot and stuck to her schedule of media interviews and ever-larger rallies, hoping to live up to her campaign nickname of "the closer."

Days before crucial primaries in Texas and Ohio that could determine who becomes the Democratic nominee for president, the political arcs of Clinton and Obama have been nearly as surprising as the historic campaigns of their spouses.

It was Clinton who was projected to be one of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's most effective champions. Still revered by many Democrats, he was expected to remind voters of the glory days of the 1990s, when Democrats retook the White House and the country enjoyed its biggest economic boom in decades. Opinion polls in the fall showed that voters saw the former president as a huge plus for his wife.

But Bill Clinton made a series of racially charged and controversial statements in the days before the South Carolina primary that helped to turn many voters, particularly African Americans, away from his wife's candidacy. His temperamental campaigning also reminded voters of the dark side of the Clinton years. In recent weeks, he has largely been kept away from one-on-one encounters with the media.

By contrast, when Sen. Barack Obama's campaign started, his wife was virtually unknown. As recently as December, her appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire drew mostly the curious, and crowds numbered in the dozens. Now hundreds of fans show up, and they invariably cheer louder at the end of her events than at the beginning.

As their spouses campaign across Texas and Ohio, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama are doing the same, sparing no superlative in describing their better halves.

Clinton says his wife has "the best solutions."

Obama calls her husband "brilliant."

Clinton labels his wife "the best candidate I ever supported in my life."

Obama says, "We need someone to challenge us to be a better nation . . . and the only person in this race who can do this is Barack Obama."

On the trail, the spouses play very different roles. Clinton comes across less as his wife's biographer than as her vice president, detailing her policy proposals in as many as six events a day. His stump speech resembles a mini-State of the Union address as he skips rapidly from Iran and Iraq to renewable fuels, tax policy and job creation.

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