Trail­ing Marge Simp­son: Cindy McCain’s pub­lic im­age is lag­ging

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Stephen Di­nan and Joseph Curl

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.”

Cindy McCain

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