What kind of first lady would the beer heiress or the ex-corporate lawyer be?
Would heiress Cindy McCain urge Americans to adopt orphans from around the world? Would attorney Michelle Obama push for mandatory community service in America?
Neither woman tipped her hand -- no surprise -- in speeches at their parties' political conventions, says Diane Blair, Fresno State associate professor of communication. McCain spoke Thursday night; Obama, the previous week.
Blair is an expert on the roles that first ladies have played through more than 200 years of American history: hostess, strategist, humanitarian, campaigner, activist. She also has studied modern first ladies who aggressively advanced their husbands' agendas -- and sometimes their own -- through speeches and other public appearances.
The first lady, and women who want the job, have become political figures in their own right, making what they say -- and how they say it -- campaign issues, experts say.
Yet the role remains ambiguous, Blair said: "The first lady is neither elected nor given constitutional guidelines to follow. And the American people are ambivalent about how much power a person in that position should wield."
In their convention speeches, McCain and Obama introduced themselves to the public. Each vouched to voters that her husband can be trusted. Obama was polished in her presentation, while McCain seemed accessible and informal by not speaking behind a podium, Blair said.
McCain had the easier task because she's less controversial, while Obama had to address critics who had charged that she isn't patriotic, Blair said.
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