Obama's wife joins push to court working class

INDIANAPOLIS Thu May 1, 2008 2:41pm EDT

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and his wife Michelle applaud at his Pennsylvania primary election night rally in Evansville, Indiana, April 22, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and his wife Michelle applaud at his Pennsylvania primary election night rally in Evansville, Indiana, April 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

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INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - If Michelle Obama had her way, her husband Barack would be a teacher, a writer, a singer, a dancer -- anything but a politician with the chance to make history as the first black president of the United States.

She described to an audience in Indianapolis how they struggled, like any other young couple in Middle America, to raise two children and pay off debts.

"We are still so close to the lives that most Americans are living," she said. "And I don't know about you but for most of my lifetime, I've felt disconnected from Washington."

The Obamas hope the "regular guy" narrative will resonate with the white working class voters that the Illinois senator has had trouble winning over and who may be the key to his White House bid.

Cast as an elitist by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic Party nomination, and John McCain, the Republican senator he could face in November's presidential election, Obama has turned to his wife to bolster his "close to the ground" credentials.

"We're a young couple with small kids with all the challenges and the emotions and the stresses that come with raising kids, like being a working mom," said Michelle Obama, 44, who is on leave from her job as hospital administrator and now divides her time between campaigning and raising the couple's two daughters -- Sasha, 6, and Malia, 9.

Though she is a Harvard-trained lawyer like her 46-year-old husband, she said the couple was not far from the years of paying off student loans and working to "keep up with bills."

The Obamas brought in $4.2 million last year, according to their tax returns. Most of the money came from royalties on Barack Obama's two bestselling books. The couple moved into the millionaire category a few years ago, moving up from their previous six-figure income.

'THE CYNIC IN THE FAMILY'

Michelle Obama described herself as slow to warm up to his interest in a career in politics and said she was initially skeptical of his vow to remake the political culture -- a theme that is central to Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" and to his presidential campaign.

"I'm the cynic in the family. I'm the one. This is the hope guy," she said, drawing laughter as she pointed to her husband during a campaign stop with him in Indiana this week.

"I've spent my life trying to convince him not to be a politician. Teach, write, sing, dance -- I don't care what you do. Don't do this. These people are mean."

She says she has since come around, viewing her husband as someone "who could unite people around values."

Barack Obama's task of courting working class voters was made more difficult by comments he made last month at a San Francisco fundraiser about "bitter" small-town voters. His rivals said the comments suggested he was "out of touch."

But when Michelle Obama made a campaign stop on Thursday in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to talk to about two dozen working mothers, retired administrative assistant Paula Goehe said the candidate's wife seemed perfectly down to earth.

"She came across as an ordinary person," Goehe said after the forum. As an older white woman, Goehe, 61, falls squarely into the category of voters who make up one of Clinton's core constituencies. But Goehe said Obama had won her over because he seemed more open to outside opinions.

"I think he's going to talk to not just all of us who agree, but all of us, period," Goehe said.

The sometimes blunt-spoken Michelle Obama grew up on the South Side of Chicago, raised by her father, a city worker, and her mother, a secretary and then a stay-at-home mom.

The Obama campaign sees her as someone whose down-to-earth style goes over well with voters.

But she has stirred controversy, such as when she said in February: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country." Critics said the comment sounded unpatriotic and suggested she had not been proud of her country before her husband's candidacy.

After losing Pennsylvania to Clinton last month, Obama hopes to edge ahead of the New York senator in Indiana, which votes on May 6 and where polls show the two Democrats are running neck-and-neck.

The Obamas on Wednesday visited the Beech Grove, Indiana home of Cheryl and Mike Fischer for a lunch of sandwiches and potato chips.

Mike Fischer, 53, spoke of layoffs that loom at Amtrak where he works as a machinist. Although he would have the option of moving to Chicago, the family has decided not to go because they want to be near family.

Asked later about the lunch, Cheryl Fischer, 52, said it had gone well and she particularly liked Michelle Obama.

"She is just down to earth. You can just talk to her. She's like your girlfriend," Fischer said.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins and Andy Sullivan; Editing by David Alexander)

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)

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