Barack Obama and the Grandma Factor in the Presidential Race

Some see the Democratic candidate's absence from the campaign trail as a big risk.

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The latest twist in the presidential campaign is the grandma factor.

Democratic nominee Barack Obama is taking a two-day break from the campaign trail, starting today, to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. This has caused considerable speculation about whether it will help or hurt his bid for the White House.

Only the most cynical would question Obama's sincerity in making the sudden trip to see 85-year-old Madelyn Dunham, who recently broke her hip and is in deteriorating health. Obama has said she was as influential as anyone in shaping his character, since she and her husband raised him when he was a teenager in Hawaii and his mother was away continuing her education. His father, Barack Obama Sr., left the family when Barack was 2 years old; his parents subsequently divorced.

The first wave of analysis suggested that leaving the campaign for two crucial days with only a week and a half left before Election Day would be a big risk. Obama canceled his participation in events in Wisconsin and Iowa, states that could be crucial to his success, and he will likely be out of the normal news flow while he is secluded with his grandmother in Honolulu. He will continue running ads all over the country and plans to resume personal campaigning in Nevada Saturday.

Now, some strategists outside Obama's campaign say the visit could benefit him politically by subtly reminding white Americans who are skeptical of electing an African-American that his mother, Ann Dunham, was white and that he was raised in a white, middle-class home by his maternal grandparents. Madelyn was a striver who rose from the job of secretary at a Hawaii bank to the position of vice president.

The trip might also help with seniors. Says a senior Republican strategist: "A lot of grandparents will say, 'Isn't he a nice boy going to visit his grandmother like that? I wish my grandson would do the same.' That's very cynical, but I really mean it. It could help him carry Florida," where many seniors have moved in retirement.

The visit might also remind voters of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's age. At 72, he would be the oldest person ever sworn in as president for a first term.

Madelyn was nicknamed "Toot" by the family as a variant on "Tutu," a Hawaiian word for grandparent, and Obama paid homage to her in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer. "She's the one who taught me about hard work," Obama said. "She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well."'

Earlier, he made her famous when he gave his much-anticipated March 18 speech on race in America. Referring to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor in Chicago, Obama said, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Madelyn Dunham still lives in the same two-bedroom apartment on Beretania Street in Honolulu where she and her husband, Stanley, raised Obama in his adolescence.

Her health status is described by Obama associates as very serious. After a stay in a hospital, she is now under the care of Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, at Madelyn's apartment.