When First Lady Michelle Obama takes the podium, she is many things – character witness for her husband, defender of the anemic economic recovery, and exhorter-in-chief for the Democratic faithful.
Which is why Michelle Obama has become one of the most traveled political spouses in recent memory. Her campaign stops Wednesday at N.C. Central University in Durham and East Carolina University in Greenville were part of her 11th visit to North Carolina since 2009, according to the campaign.
There is little mystery why.
While North Carolinians are very divided about the president and his nearly four-year tenure, there is much broader support for his wife. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh, found that she had a 55 percent favorable rating and a 37 percent unfavorable rating.
“She is his most effective surrogate along with former President Clinton,” pollster Tom Jensen said. “She is very popular with independents. She can help (President Barack Obama) with women voters.”
The Republican ticket also has begun using Ann Romney as a way to humanize GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Although she has made only two campaign visits to the state, the GOP ticket has begun using her in satellite interviews with Tar Heel TV stations.
Last week, Ann Romney gave interviews to WCNC in Charlotte and WFMY in Greensboro, and on Tuesday she gave an interview to NBC-17 in Raleigh.
Ann Romney also is well thought of, with a 53 percent favorable rating and a 29 percent unfavorable rating, according to Public Policy Polling.
“In both cases, the wives are more popular than their husbands,” Jensen said.
Michelle Obama is hardly the first political spouse to hit the hustings in North Carolina. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary here, Bill Clinton campaigned so extensively for his wife, Hillary, that the Obama campaign joked that the former president seemed to be running “for mayor of small-town North Carolina.” Elizabeth Dole campaigned several times in her native Tar Heel state for her husband, Bob Dole, in 1996.
But except for the singular case of Bill Clinton, it seems unlikely that any presidential spouse has spent so much time in North Carolina. (President Obama has visited the state 12 times since 2009, according to the campaign, more times than his wife.)
One reason why Michelle Obama has spent so much time in the state is because she has adopted as one of her issues the improvement of care for military families – a powerful issue in a state laden with military bases, said Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political science professor. It is an issue, Haynie said, that goes beyond narrow partisan political appeal.
She also has an ability to talk about her husband and about national issues, Haynie said, in a way that does not seem overtly political.
In her talk to 3,100 people at NCCU’s McClendon-McDougald Gymnasium, Michelle Obama did not once mention Mitt Romney.
Her criticisms are oblique. She tells the audience that the country must continue moving forward under the policies of the past three and half years.
Researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this story.