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Michelle Obama Gears Up for the Campaign Trail

Michelle Obama
WASHINGTON - JULY 07: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks to employees while visiting the Treasury Department July 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Treasury Department was the 20th agency she visited to thank employees for their public service. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Michelle Obama Alex Wong

Home from summer vacations and preparing for her daughters' return to school, it's only a matter of time before First Lady Michelle Obama starts campaigning for Democrats facing tough midterm election challenges.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I anticipate that at some point she will likely make some appearances."

CBS News has confirmed Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Joe Sestak, California Senator Barbara Boxer and first-term Representatives Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Gerald Connolly of Virginia are among Democrats seeking the first lady's help. Perhaps they hope she will live up to the "closer" title bestowed on her by members of her husband's 2008 campaign team.

Congressman Connolly told CBS News that Mrs. Obama, "should be deployed as much as possible and as much as she's willing and able." Connolly, who represents a district in Washington's Virginia suburbs, said, "It's critical that we make sure our base stays energized. Michelle Obama has, I think, enormous power in energizing the base and re-energizing the base where that's necessary."

But Mrs. Obama's entry into the rough and tumble of the midterm elections would carry potential political risks and challenges.

Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus noted, "Once the First Lady throws herself into the political arena it changes the dynamics in terms of how people view her and what's off limits and what isn't off limits."

Interactive Map: CBS News Election 2010 Race Ratings

Jacobus, president of the Washington consulting firm Capitol Strategies, believes "once she [Mrs. Obama] puts herself out there, this is no longer a hands-off situation. She can't cry foul or be a hot house orchid when people come to her with the tough questions."

Jacobus also believes the ever increasing number of women candidates and elected officials in both parties changes the dynamic for first ladies who assume a political role.

"Women candidates can put forth their own image and male candidates do not necessarily need to treat women candidates any differently which also means they don't need to treat first ladies differently as campaigners when they go out there on the campaign trail," the Republican adviser told CBS Radio News.

But Republicans could also face a dilemma responding to Mrs. Obama. Polls almost always show that first ladies are traditionally among the most admired women in the country.

So far, Mrs. Obama's White House image has centered on mostly positive coverage of her efforts to combat childhood obesity by promoting a healthy diet and exercise. She has been seen on TV shows and magazine covers teaching children about the White House vegetable garden.

Earlier this summer she took a hit from conservative commentators and others for vacationing in Spain. In a CBS News poll conducted August 20-24, after news of the trip to Spain made headlines, 45 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of Mrs. Obama. Only eleven percent held an unfavorable opinion of her. Twenty-two percent were undecided.

The findings were down only slightly from September 2009 when 50 percent of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of her. The first lady's approval numbers have also closely tracked President Obama's ratings. He registered a 48 percent approval rating in the latest CBS News survey. In April 2009, as Mr. Obama was marking his 100 days in office, 67 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the first lady - her highest rating yet in CBS News polling. The president was especially popular at that point - 68 percent of Americans approved of the overall job he was doing.

Pictures: The Obamas in Spain
Pictures: Michelle Obama in Mexico

Details of Mrs. Obama's political agenda are still under review. An official said, her campaign schedule "will be sorted out after Labor Day in conjunction with the president's schedule."

The campaign trail will likely take her to carefully controlled events like her appearance at a Democratic National Committee women's meeting in May.

If she follows the script used at the DNC event, Mrs. Obama's message will center on a call for Democrats to "get out there and get it done because we know that change...doesn't happen overnight." But her expected first major foray into partisan politics since moving to the White House will certainly mark a change in the public strategy that she's pursued so far.


CBS news contributor correspondent Peter Maer CBS
Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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