Voters study potential first ladies

AMANDA CUDA, CT Post

Article Launched: 06/24/2008 12:18:35 AM EDT

From now until November, the nation's voters will keep a close eye on the two presumptive presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

Voters will watch how the men carry themselves; how they react under pressure. They'll listen to McCain and Obama offer their thoughts on the major issues facing the country, including the economy and the war in Iraq.

But there's one other detail voters will monitor in the months leading up to the presidential elections — the candidates' wives. Americans have long used the potential first ladies as a way of assessing presidential candidates, said Lisa Burns, an associate professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. This election's two presumed potential first ladies, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama, are no exception.

"The public looks to these women to find out more about their husbands," said Burns, an expert on media coverage of first ladies.

"People think the issues are important, but they really want to know what kind of guy is going to be running the country."

One insight the public has already gained is that the two candidates have vastly different tastes in women.

Michelle Obama, 44, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, was educated at Princeton and Harvard and became an attorney. If her husband were elected, she would be the first black first lady.

Cindy McCain, 54, hails from Phoenix, grew up in a wealthy family, attended the University of Southern California, and is heiress to Hensley & Co., one of the largest distributors in the United States for Anheuser-Busch.

So far, Michelle Obama has a slight edge in the public opinion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week showed that, of those surveyed, 48 percent said they saw Michelle Obama favorably, while 39 percent said the same of Cindy McCain.

It's possible that more people have warmed to Obama because she seems more "authentic" than McCain, said Henry Schissler, an assistant professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

"I think Michelle is ahead because of what is perceived as genuineness," said Schissler, who also works part time at Quinnipiac.

Voters might be more willing to trust Obama because of her background, and might be turned off by McCain because of her wealth, Schissler said. "I don't think people are very trusting of wealthy people right now," he said.

However, according to the same poll, a slightly larger group of people view Michelle Obama unfavorably — 29 percent compared with 25 percent for Cindy McCain.

Burns said Michelle Obama has certainly attracted more negative attention in the press. Most notably, she drew criticism for remarking "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," during an event.

For better or for worse, moments like that have kept the Obamas in the media spotlight, Burns said. Some are even casting her in the same light as her husband's former Democratic opponent — and former first lady — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Burns said.

"Everybody loves a negative story," she said. "In some respects [Michelle Obama is] the woman we now love to hate."

But a lot of people still haven't made up their minds about either woman. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they hadn't yet formed an opinion of Michelle Obama, and 36 percent said the same of Cindy McCain.

Maybe that's why the women have been making the media rounds recently. Cindy McCain appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week, lauding her husband's merits as a leader and discussing her work with Operation Smile, an international organization that helps children with facial deformities.

Meanwhile, last week, Michelle Obama co-hosted the ABC chatfest "The View," poking fun at her sometimes controversial image and gabbing with Barbara Walters and company about such pressing issues as whether women should wear pantyhose.

These appearances helped the public get to know their potential first ladies, Burns said. Prior to the "Good Morning America" appearance, for instance, "most of what we've seen of Cindy McCain has been of her with her husband on the podium."

But, with the interview, and Cindy McCain's recent trip to Vietnam as part o f her work with Operation Smile, she's shown voters another dimension of her personality, Burns said.

Michelle Obama also helped add more facets to her public image with her "View" appearance. While on the program, she addressed her "proud of my country" comment, and explained how it was taken out of context. Burns said Michelle Obama did well on "The View."

"She appeared very likable," she said. "She came off very much as the kind of person you could sit down and have coffee with."

In addition to authenticity and approachability, Burns said potential first ladies are also judged on fashion choices. In this area, she said, both have made interesting decisions that evoke memories of earlier first ladies.

With her sculpted hair and simple elegance, Obama has frequently been compared to Jackie Kennedy. "She literally does have almost the exact same hairdo" as Kennedy, Burns said.

Meanwhile, McCain's tailored suits have drawn comparison to Nancy Reagan.

Both women also have claimed that, should their husbands be elected, they would take a "traditional" approach to the post of first lady.

But Sacred Heart University political professor Gary Rose doesn't buy that. "I don't foresee a traditional first lady role for either of them," he said.

In fact, despite their surface differences, Rose said the two women are alike in many ways. "I'd say they're both very formidable in terms of their presence, in terms of speaking ability, in terms of their confidence," he said.

In the past, that might have been a detriment to their husbands, but Rose said people are more accepting of a first lady with a personality and a mind of her own. "I think the public attitudes have been changed," Rose said. "I think they really are looking for someone who's a little more outspoken."