Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, likely first ladies

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Cindy McCain rarely strays from her campaign script and almost never says anything political. So when the 53-year-old wife of the Republican presidential candidate remarked in February: “I don’t know about you … but I’m very proud of my country,” people took notice.

By Edward Luce and Andrew Ward

Although she did not mention Michelle Obama by name, Mrs McCain’s remarks were aimed at the 44-year-old wife of the Democratic frontrunner. Mrs Obama (pictured below with her husband) had sparked a fire-storm earlier that week when she said: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country, not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”

It is commonplace to say that a contest between John McCain and Barack Obama would present America with one of its starkest choices ever – between old and young, white and black, conservative and liberal and someone born into privilege against an opponent raised by a single mother on food stamps. An equally sharp contrast can be observed of their spouses.

There is still a chance that Hillary Clinton could wrest the nomination from Mr Obama. In which case, Washington would revive last year’s parlour game about whether Bill Clinton would be known as the “First Gentleman”, the “First Spouse” or even the “First Laddie”, as a Scottish friend of the former president suggested.

But the Republican party is already treating Mr Obama as the nominee, not least in its growing tendency to target his wife. The most recent came in a television advertisement in Tennessee on Thursday in which a variety of people were featured explaining why they were proud of America.

“I don’t like it but I think that Michelle Obama’s perceived lack of patriotism will be made into an issue in the general election,” says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. “It is much harder to see how the Democrats could turn Cindy McCain into an issue.”

The backgrounds of the two aspiring First Ladies are even further apart than their husbands. Mrs McCain was born into wealth as the daughter of Jim Hensley, an Arizona beer baron whose company, Hensley & Co, became one of the country’s biggest distributors of Budweiser. When he died in 2000, Mrs McCain inherited control of the business.

While she leaves day-to-day management to others, Mrs McCain (left) plays an active role in strategic planning. It is not known how much of the company she owns but analysts believe her stake is worth at least $100m (£51m, €64m). In spite of this, Mrs McCain comes across as a traditional politician’s spouse.

At campaign events, she introduces her husband with a glowing account of his qualities as a father before standing dutifully to his side as he gives his stump speech. Dressed invariably in an expensive pantsuit without a strand of blond hair out of place, she nods in agreement and laughs at his jokes.

Friends say Mrs McCain did not relish the prospect of her husband making a second run after his bitter defeat to Mr Bush in 2000, when opponents waged a dirty tricks campaign during the South Carolina primary.

A leaflet was distributed showing a picture of Mr McCain with a dark-skinned baby it claimed he had fathered illegitimately. In fact, the child was the McCains’ daughter, Bridget, whom they adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage. “When the question of running again came up, she was very reluctant and worried for Bridget,” says Sharon Harper, a close friend.

Like Laura Bush, Mrs McCain displays no ambition to play a policymaking role. “I think the American people still truly want a traditional family in the White House,” she said last year. That might disqualify Michelle Obama. A working black mother-of-two from an unflashy Chicago background, Mrs Obama is in many respects as self-made as her husband.

Majoring in sociology from Princeton and going on, like her husband, to study law at Harvard, Mrs Obama gives speeches with a command that has won over many voters. In Iowa, which staged the first contest in the calendar and which Mr Obama won, his campaign dubbed Michelle “the [deal] closer”.

Unlike Mrs McCain, who prefers to be out of the limelight, Mrs Obama follows a separate schedule of between two and four days a week, depending on whether the two young Obama daughters are on holiday. She has also retained her $320,000-a-year job as a community and public relations officer for Chicago University Hospitals.

This weekend, all four Obamas will campaign in Oregon, which holds one of the final primary votes next Tuesday. “Michelle likes to interact with small gatherings of voters and have free-flowing exchanges of views – that is what was so effective in Iowa,” says a spokesperson.

But Mrs Obama’s very fluency has also landed her in hot water. Conservatives have focused on her observation that America has become a “mean-spirited country” in which most people are struggling to make ends meet, depicting the remark as part of a broader tendency to run down her country.

Others have sought to trace Mrs Obama’s often downbeat views on America to Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama’s former pastor, who conducted their wedding ceremony, baptised their daughters and who was notoriously captured on video uttering “God Damn America” from his pulpit.

Some fear the election could descend into racial innuendo in much the same way that Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic contender and then governor of Massachusetts, was targeted by the infamous “Willie Horton” attack ad, in which a black offender in his state committed rape and murder when on furlough.

In a breathtakingly provocative commentary, Bill O’Reilly, the rightwing Fox News anchor, responded to Mrs Obama’s “pride” remarks by saying: “I don’t want to send out a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s hard evidence that this is the way she really feels.”

Mrs Obama’s schedule reflects an understanding that she goes down better with some audiences, such as African Americans, than others, such as blue-collar whites. She made 18 appearances in the short South Carolina primary in January against just two in the extended Pennsylvania primary.

“I would not advise the McCain campaign to attack Michelle Obama directly – I would leave that to O’Reilly and others,” says Floyd Brown, who made the Willie Horton ad. “It is difficult for Americans to swallow that this is such a mean-spirited country from a woman who has been given so many opportunities.”

It is hard to imagine Cindy McCain generating as much vituperation – or adulation – as Michelle Obama. Yet she has her vulnerabilities. Some in the media have dredged up Mrs McCain’s battle with prescription drugs in the early 1990s, which she described as the “darkest period” in her life.

She became addicted to painkillers after back surgery in 1989 and fed her habit by stealing pills from a medical charity she had founded. She confessed to her husband after the Drug Enforcement Administration launched an investigation into her charity and became a regular at Narcotics Anonymous.

There has also been scrutiny of the McCain marriage, after The New York Times published allegations of a close relationship between Mr McCain and a female lobbyist. The same day Mrs McCain appeared with her husband and expressed confidence that he had done nothing wrong.

But the most enduring focus is on Mrs McCain’s refusal to disclose her tax returns. “This is a privacy issue,” she said recently, explaining that she and her husband had always kept separate finances. “I am not the candidate.”

Many compare her stance to that of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wealthy spouse of the 2004 Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who was eventually cajoled into disclosing her returns. Questions have also arisen about Mr McCain’s use of his wife’s corporate plane – a loophole that allows candidates to reimburse only the cost of a first-class fare.

“McCain has built a reputation for transparency, so for his wife to be the one who won’t release her tax returns is problematic,” says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an advocacy group.

Still, Mrs McCain could lay the matter to rest with a simple phone call to her accountant. The same cannot be said of the allegations and innuendoes to which Mrs Obama is increasingly subject. Yet much like Hillary Clinton, who was a divisive figure in her husband’s 1992 campaign, Mrs Obama appears to draw strength from adversity.

Moreover, Mr Obama is running a tighter campaign than most of his predecessors – particularly Mr Dukakis. “Some Republicans might try to play the race card with Michelle in a starring role, although my guess is it would backfire,” says Mike Feldman, a former senior official for Al Gore. “That won’t stop some people from trying but they do so at their own risk.”

The Financial Times

Obama running for the White House  The senator of Illinois is currently running for the White House but first of all he has to win the Primaries
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