Is the White House Rolling Out Its Secret Weapon?

The First Lady

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Clarification Appended: August 2, 2010

Michelle Obama may be about to get her political toes wet. In May, she headlined the Democratic Party's annual women's conference; in early June, she made an appearance in Nevada with Senate majority leader Harry Reid. She also recently took her husband's place in Kansas City, Mo., at the annual NAACP convention.

More outings could be in the offing. Dozens of Democratic congressional candidates, including Ohio's Steve Driehaus, Illinois's Debbie Halvorson and Mississippi's Travis Childers, have asked the White House for her to appear in their districts this fall, according to a senior party official. (Though Childers' office insists his request was submitted on behalf of constituents and not political in nature.) "I'd love to have Michelle Obama in particular," says Mary Jo Kilroy, a freshman Democrat from Ohio who initially asked the First Lady to visit her district at a White House Christmas party. "Her style is not politics as usual."

Traditionally, that's been the pattern for First Ladies. When asked about her own politics, for example, Pat Nixon remarked in 1970, "I just want to go down in history as the wife of the President." But stumping for candidates has become commonplace for presidential spouses lately. Laura Bush campaigned for more than three dozen GOP candidates in 2006, most of them in moderate districts where, the White House acknowledged at the time, her husband would do more harm than good.

Up until now, Michelle Obama has focused on her South Lawn garden, childhood obesity and military families. While her husband's approval ratings have slumped, hers have remained strong. A new TIME poll found that while only 49% like the job the President is doing, 63% think Michelle is doing an "excellent" or "good" job.

Just because some candidates want Michelle to visit doesn't mean she will be stepping out. "There is not much downside for the candidates, but Mrs. Obama has carefully avoided controversy since the campaign, cultivating the image of a devoted mother," says Larry Sabato, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia. The White House knows that the more partisan Michelle becomes, the less popular she's likely to be. So it may want to preserve her popularity for another race: the one in 2012.

The original version of this article cited Travis Childers as one of the dozens of Democratic congressional candidates who have asked the White House for Michelle Obama to appear in their districts this fall. Childers' office says the request was submitted on behalf of constituents and was not political in nature.