SHAFAQNA – She can rouse a crowd as she did here this week, connect with women and drive turnout among African-American voters. Yet despite the nail-biting closeness of state contests to decide which party will control the Senate, Michelle Obama has been largely absent from the campaign trail so far.
She has her reasons, Democrats say: Mrs. Obama hates to be away from her daughters. She loathes Washington’s toxic politics. She resents Republicans for their opposition to her husband’s agenda. But she also believes some Senate Democrats have been insufficiently supportive of her own efforts to end childhood obesity.
This month, though, Mrs. Obama is emerging to rally voters, mostly, it seems, on behalf of candidates for governor. On Friday, she was in Maine and Massachusetts for rallies, and later she will return to Wisconsin for another voter-mobilization event like the one she led here on Monday.
But unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as first lady crisscrossed the country for Democrats in 1998, visiting about 20 states, Mrs. Obama will keep to a fairly limited path. In a measure of how deeply unpopular her husband is in Republican-leaning battleground states, Democratic Senate candidates there worry that Mrs. Obama’s presence would tie them too closely to the president they are trying to distance themselves from, just as undecided voters are making up their minds.
“She’s awesome, but it just brings in the name Obama,” said a Democratic strategist in a state with a close Senate race, who, like most other Democrats interviewed, declined to be identified discussing politics involving Mrs. Obama.
Last month, the only candidate Mrs. Obama campaigned for was Michelle Nunn, who will need a larger-than-usual turnout of African-American and female voters to win Georgia’s open Senate seat. Mrs. Obama has no plans to go to Arkansas, Louisiana or North Carolina, three of the states with the most competitive races that will decide whether Democrats hold their Senate majority. She will, however, lead a rally on Oct. 23 in Colorado for Mark Udall, the embattled incumbent senator.
In downtown Milwaukee this week, as a couple of thousand people lined up outside a convention center hours ahead of Mrs. Obama’s appearance, campaign workers for Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor, mingled among them with clipboards and computer tablets. They were seeking to capitalize on the first lady’s drawing power by enlisting volunteers and encouraging early voting.
“The biggest fear of the Republican Party is high turnout,” said Joan Zeiger, 71, wearing a union T-shirt. So how does Mrs. Obama help? “She’s black, she’s a woman, and we think that’s a double-whammy.”
Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans approve of Mrs. Obama’s performance as first lady. That is roughly 20 points higher than the approval rating for her husband, who, not coincidentally, has done almost no public campaign events with candidates, only private fund-raisers.
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Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democratic Senate leader, likened Mrs. Obama to Mrs. Clinton in the 1998 midterm campaign, calling her “a great weapon for us.”
There are parallels between the Democratic first ladies in their turns as campaign closers — but significant differences as well.
During the 1998 midterms, President Bill Clinton, like President Obama now, was shunned by many Democratic candidates (Mr. Clinton faced impeachment at the time). In September, Mrs. Clinton shook off her fury at her husband’s philandering and went on the road, gaining popularity for her resilience and becoming “a one-woman campaign machine” by one newspaper’s account, the “Democrats’ ace” by another’s, and “the hottest politician in the land,” according to a third (which also noted that she was not on any ballot “and probably never will be”).
But the battleground states that year were not so skewed toward Republicans as they are now, giving Mrs. Clinton more political room to roam. And she was far more politically active than Mrs. Obama, or most other first ladies: Two years later, Mrs. Clinton would make her own successful bid to become a senator from New York.
As for Mrs. Obama, “In this cycle there has not been a request that she has not met,” said M. C. González Noguera, her communications director.
“She understands the importance of the midterms, and she also understands the reality that voter turnout during the midterms tends to be lower,” Ms. González Noguera said. “She sees her role in these midterms as one of the key people in this administration who is out there getting people to organize and vote.”
“When we stay home, they win,” Mrs. Obama told her Milwaukee crowd. “They,” of course, refers to Republicans, a word the first lady seems to avoid, as if it makes her sound too partisan.
Even in the South — especially there, some Democrats say — candidates in these final weeks of the campaign must weigh the need to remain apart from Mr. Obama against the allure of using Mrs. Obama to rally women, African-Americans and young people who typically vote only in presidential election years.
In some states where her husband is viewed negatively, Mrs. Obama can reach out to select audiences in another way — like the ads she recorded for Senator Kay Hagan that are set to run on radio stations in North Carolina with an African-American audience.
As she campaigns, Mrs. Obama avoids overtly partisan appeals. In that she is perhaps less like Mrs. Clinton and more like Laura Bush, who was also a more sought-after campaigner than her unpopular husband during midterm elections in 2006.
Last month, when Mrs. Obama was in Atlanta for the voter-registration rally with Ms. Nunn, the first lady held an educational event where she praised the wife of Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, a top Democratic target. In Milwaukee, Mrs. Obama never said the name of Ms. Burke’s rival, Gov. Scott Walker, confining her remarks to affirmative reasons to elect Ms. Burke.
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Besides Ms. Nunn and Mr. Udall, just two other Senate candidates so far are expected to get visits from Mrs. Obama: Representative Gary Peters of Michigan and Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa. Mrs. Obama has recorded radio ads for Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mr. Peters.
Administration aides say the limited list has nothing to do with the fact that Mrs. Obama tangled privately with Senate Democrats for months, into the summer, for not doing more to halt Republican and food industry attempts to weaken the child nutrition and school lunch standards she has spearheaded. She was particularly angered when 11 Democrats from potato-growing states signed a letter by Republicans opposing the administration’s exclusion of white potatoes from the foods that beneficiaries of the Women, Infants and Children program can buy.
While few of the Democratic signers are in re-election battles, they included Mr. Udall and Mr. Merkley, as well as Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee.
Ultimately, Democrats say, Mrs. Obama understands the consequences if the party were to lose its Senate majority. She made that argument herself to voters last month in Atlanta.
Referring to Republicans — again without using the term — she said, “They’ve even tried to block the work I do on child obesity, and that’s really saying something.”