Michelle Obama's Campaign Trail Vacation Recalls Hillary in '98

When the first lady becomes the campaigner-in-chief.

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The Washington Post has an interesting piece today about how Democrats have decided that, with President Obama foundering in the polls, Michelle Obama is their secret weapon heading into the 2010 midterms. As a result the next vacation "the closer," as she was nicknamed in 2008, takes will be out onto the campaign trail. In this regard she'll be following a path trod by her predecessors, most notably Hillary Clinton in 1998.

[ See photos of Michelle Obama.]

According to the Post:

Unlike her husband, the first lady has maintained her appeal to women, independents, and the new and young voters who helped propel her family into the White House. She has won praise for the issues she has chosen to champion, such as curbing childhood obesity. She has become something of a cultural and fashion icon, drawing a different kind of attention to the White House. And with an approval rating of 66 percent, she is easily the administration's most popular figure.

The story cites White House officials saying that Mrs. Obama could help Democrats raise as much as $20 million this year--talk about the golden touch. It notes that the first lady has already appeared at a campaign-like rally in Nevada with Senate Majority Leader  Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus, and it lists a few Democrats who have already asked for her campaigning aid: Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, seeking reelection, and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, who is trying to replace Sen. Arlen Specter, and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

[ See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Boxer is no stranger to such aid. Facing a tough reelection back in 1998, she was one of many candidate who go help from Hillary Clinton. Recall that this was the summer and fall of Monica, and with impeachment brewing in the House some thought it would quite literally become the fall of Bill. Into the void stepped Hillary Clinton.

As Time reported in mid-November of that year:

We all thought a woman who has loved Bill Clinton would dramatically influence the midterms, and we were right. It just wasn't Monica. ... And [Hillary] delivered. Of course, not every candidate she stumped for won--but well over half did, many in squeakers. "Her impact was electric," says Hank Morris, a consultant who helped Democrat Charles Schumer beat Alfonse D'Amato in New York. "We trended up every time she was here."

Morris wasn't the only Democratic operative who gushed praise for the first lady as first campaigner.

She played a key role in Tom Vilsack's last-minute shocker over former G.O.P. Congressman Jim Lightfoot in the Iowa Governor's race. The Vilsack campaign crested when Hillary was there. "The polls were showing a dead heat, and then she brought this burst of enthusiasm," says David Axelrod, a Vilsack operative.

You think Axe might be remembering what an important weapon Mrs. C was as he sends Mrs. O around the country? We probably can't hope for 1998-like results--Democrats actually picking up seats--but the first lady could prove a potent weapon and bulwark against crippling GOP gains in the battle for Congress.

The Time piece also provides a nice, in-retrospect-ironic coda to the story of Hillary in '98. After noting that her help had failed to stop GOPer Peter Fitzgerald from winning election to the Senate from Illinois, it closes thusly:

Could her success this year push her into a race of her own? She says she has no such plans. But the ecstatic crowds in Chicago leave [Democratic operative Tony] Podesta wondering: "There's no doubt in my mind she could beat Peter Fitzgerald in 2004."

That success did push her into a race of her own, of course, but not in her native Illinois in 2004. Instead she won Pat Moynihan's old New York seat in 2000, leaving little known Democrat Barack Obama to capture the seat (Fitzgerald did not run again) in 2004. Where would we be today if she had run in Illinois instead of New York?