Trailing Marge Simpson: Cindy McCain’s public image is lagging
Before Cindy McCain equals the stature of Michelle Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, she will have to top Marge Simpson.
The latest Fox 5/The Washington Times/RasmussenReportspollasked Americans which mother has “had the most positive influence on America,” and Mrs. McCain trailed the pack, with just 4 percent — well below Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and topchoice first lady Laura Bush. She even trailed the fictional matriarch from “The Simpsons,” who garnered 9 percent.
With less than six months to go on the campaign trail for presumed Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, his wife finds herself having to create a public persona to match that of her husband, in a political environment where voters increasingly see political spouses as a key point of information in judging a candidate.
“Americanstakeacertainmeasure of the candidate from his or her spouse — they want to see that person, they want to know a little about that person,” said Myra Gutin, a professor of communications at New Jersey’s Rider University who has studied first ladies. “Perhaps it’s the same with Mrs. McCain. Most of the people just don’t know her.”
The McCain campaign says that will change.
“She’s an asset to the campaign and people will see a lot more of her in the coming months,” said spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield.
Mrs. McCain already appears to be on a gradual path toward higher visibility with a mini-media blitz of her own over the past few weeks: co-hosting girls’ gabfest “The View,” offering a frank account of her dating history with the senator to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” (she found him “kind of weird”) and sitting down for an interview about her tax returns and her charitable work with NBC’s “Today” show.
Mrs. McCain, 53, has a long story to tell. She has worked with charities such as Operation Smile, which pays for corrective surgery on children’s deformities, and Halo Trust, which calls attention to unexploded land mines. She also tells a story on the campaign trail of having visited with Mother Teresa, who persuaded her to adopt a girl with a cleft palate from an orphanage in Bangladesh.
But Mrs. McCain’s background is more expansive than just the charity work. She is heiress to and chairman of her father’s beer distributorship, has a net worth in the tens of millions and acknowledged a dependency on prescription painkillers she stole from her own medical relief charity. She was spared prison time for the offense by entering a diversion program.
Even with her limited profile in this presidential race, she has had a few stumbles, including being bashed for posting as her own some recipes apparently taken from the Food Network’s Web site. And her independent wealth could cause a problem for Mr. McCain, a champion of openness, since she refuses to release her tax returns.
“We have filed separate tax returns for 28 years. This is a privacy issue. My husband is the candidate. I am not the candidate,” she told the “Today” show last week.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has homed in on the issue.
“John McCain may not like it, but the American people have a right to know about the well-documented links between his political career and the McCains’ business ventures,” Mr. Dean said two weeks ago. “John McCain’s refusal to meet the standard of every other candidate seeking the office is one more reason he’s the wrong choice for America’s future.”
Mrs. McCain’s distinction between herself and her husband is at odds with her own view last year when, at a candidates’ spouses forum in October, Mrs. McCain said voters are right to look at her as well as her husband.
“I think the American people truly are electing both people, but from the spouse point of view, not in a leadership or decision-making aspect,” she said.
Several analysts said to expect Mrs. McCain to follow the route of Mrs. Bush, who used her 2000 Republican nominating convention speech to define herself for voters. Since then, Mrs. Bush has shown a deft touch at protecting her public profile and deploying it in strategic ways to help her husband.
Similar to Mrs. Bush, Mrs. McCain is far less outspoken than her husband, though she has mixed it up in the campaign a few times, including in response to a comment from Mrs. Obama,whosaidinFebruarythatshe was “really proud” of her country for the first time in her adult life.
“I am proud of my country. I don’t know about you, if you heard those words earlier. I am very proud of my country,” Mrs. McCain said.
Also in February, Mrs. McCain stood next to her husband at a press conferencethemorningtheNewYork Times reported that Mr. McCain had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist.
“Obviously, I’m very disappointed in the New York Times,” she said, declaring her husband “a man of great character.”
At that point, Mr. McCain took back the microphone, saying to her, “I should have had you conduct this meeting.”
In the new Washington Times poll, Mrs. McCain trailed the other names in every demographic category except among self-identified Republicans and those who earn more than $100,000 a year. Republicans placed her fourth, ahead of Mrs. Obama, while she was the third choice for high-income earners, behind Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Clinton.
Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, said scrutiny of candidates’ spouses will be at an all-time high during this election campaign and spouses should expect to be subject to the same kind of YouTube highlights and spoofs the candidates will get.
She said for now, Mrs. McCain has been on the trail mostly with her husband, occupying “more the Laura Bush model,” while Mrs. Obama is more in the “Teresa Heinz Kerry model” of assertiveness.
“Cindy McCain is playing more of this traditional supportive role until people get to know her better,” Ms. MacManus said. “My guess is, that’s when her use will change.”