Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain are very different women, each with her own appeal and both with their eyes on one prize — the role of America's First Lady. By Caitriona Palmer
They are like chalk and cheese. One is a Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer from a working class Chicago family, who battled racial and gender discrimination to become a high-flying executive.
The other is a former rodeo queen and cheerleader turned beer magnate, a wealthy heiress from a privileged family who looks like she stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine.
But Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain have one thing in common. Both want their husbands to be the next president of the United States.
With the popular, reserved Laura Bush soon to depart the east wing of the White House, Americans — who are notoriously sentimental about their first ladies — are already anxious to know who will step into her shoes.
Ready to take her place are two women known for their robust resumes, their glamourous sense of style and their fierce and protective devotion to their children. Will Michelle (44) — the strong-willed, wise-cracking wife of the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama — make history as the first African American US first lady?
Or will the prize go to the blonde, blue-eyed Cindy (54) — the perfectly-coiffed partner of Republican senator John McCain — whose soft-spoken manner is in tune with that of more traditional first ladies, such as Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush?
Posing in impossibly-tiny size zero designer jeans in this month's edition of Vogue magazine, Cindy — a mother of four and CEO of a multi-million dollar beer-distribution business — looks every inch the Stepford wife.
But behind her immaculate make-up and preternatural smile is a resilient woman who has survived an addiction to prescription painkillers and a serious stroke four years ago that left her hobbled, with a dragging right side and slurred speech.
Born into one of the richest families in Arizona and worth an estimated $100 million, the publicity-adverse Cindy admits there was "instant chemistry" when she first met her husband — who is 18 years her senior — at a cocktail party in Hawaii.
"I was standing at the hors d'oeuvre table, young, shy, not knowing anybody," Cindy told Harper's Bazaar.
"Suddenly, this awfully nice looking Navy captain in dress whites was kind of chasing me around the table. I thought, 'What's going on here?'" The handsome naval officer was married at the time, although separated from the wife who had waited for five-and-a-half years for him while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Over late-night drinks, she pretended she was four years older, he pretended he was four years younger, a lie only exposed when they applied together for a marriage licence.
After the birth of three children — and several miscarriages — Cindy adopted a tiny baby named Bridget from a Bangladeshi orphanage in 1991.
She had brought the baby to the US for treatment of a cleft palate, but was so besotted she chose to adopt the child.
"I decided that I couldn't part with her," Cindy told campaign audiences.
During his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2000 against George Bush, Bridget was unwittingly co-opted into a notorious whispering campaign that she was allegedly John McCain's love child from a relationship with a black woman.
Protected by her parents from the controversy, Bridget, now 16, learned about the smears when she was old enough to Google herself. A reluctant political spouse, Cindy allegedly had deep reservations when her husband proposed a second bid for the presidency in 2008. "She's cautious because she's been burned," said Mark McKinnon, an adviser to her husband. "But she's still totally natural."
Her reluctance comes in part from her confession about her addiction to prescription painkillers following back surgery — a habit that had caused her to steal drugs from her own medical charity for personal use — and an admission that damaged her husband's doomed campaign in 2000.
These days, Cindy stands demurely behind John McCain on the campaign trail, politely introducing him and then stepping back into the shadows. Her deference on the hustings is in sharp contrast to the confident, outspoken Michelle, who has wowed her husband's supporters with her fiery oratory skills.
A big hit among female voters, Michelle has tried to demystify the near messianic cult surrounding her husband telling tales of his all too human failings — like his inability to pick up his socks or to put the butter back in the refrigerator.
Criticised for divulging "too much information" — she once shared her frustrations at having to grapple with an overflowing toilet — she has a propensity for bluntness that sometimes causes her husband's aides to cringe. As a parade of journalists jostled after her husband following his arrival to the senate in January 2005, Michelle rolled her eyes and pulled a reporter aside.
"Maybe one day, he will do something to warrant all this attention," she said.
Her husband endures her irreverence with good humour. "She's a little meaner than I am," he once joked.
Born into a working class family — her father was a Chicago city pump operator who suffered from multiple sclerosis — Michelle grew up in a modest four-room bungalow on Chicago's South Side.
She met her husband when she was a corporate lawyer and she was assigned to mentor him as a summer associate. Their first date was an outing to see the Spike Lee movie, Do The Right Thing.
Fiercely competitive and pragmatic, Michelle juggled a fast-paced life even before the glare of the campaign, combining hands-on mothering with a successful career as a hospital executive. Tall and athletic — until recently she got up at 4.30am each morning to work out on the treadmill — Michelle is stylishly appointed, but never dainty.
She is, in the words of her brother, a "force to be reckoned with", a tenacious fighter who hates to lose, whether it be a political campaign or a board game with her family.
"Everyone in the family is afraid of her," her brother Craig Robinson once told the New York Times with a smile.
When asked if Barack Obama — a well-publicised smoker — had used a nicotine patch to quit smoking, Mr Robinson laughed. "Michelle Obama!" he said. "That's one hell of a patch right there!"
For accomplished women with full lives, taking on the role of first-lady-to-be can be a thankless task. It requires enduring the most superficial kind of scrutiny, biting one's tongue at every turn and publicly deferring to a spouse in a way that resembles the Victorian era.
Only the fiercest kind of devotion and loyalty can carry someone through months of often monotonous campaigning.
"I know Barack is something special," Michelle told supporters on the campaign trail. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be here." And neither would Cindy.