WASHINGTON (AFP) — Barack Obama has a simple message for Republicans looking for a target: "lay off my wife."
The Democrat who each day strides closer to his party's White House nomination showed a flash of steel Monday, in trying to shield Michelle Obama from the campaign trail crossfire.
"These folks should lay off my wife," Obama told ABC News, hitting out at a Tennessee Republican Party ad questioning the patriotism of his wife, a driven Ivy League-educated lawyer and mother of their two daughters.
"If they think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful, because that I find unacceptable, the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family," Obama said.
The 46-year-old Illinois senator said his wife was the most honest person he knew and "loves this country," and branded the ad as "low class."
Michelle Obama, 44, has been a favorite punchbag on the powerful conservative talk radio circuit for months, over an offhand remark during a campaign swing through Wisconsin in February.
"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," she had said, explaining the surge of pride she felt in both her husband and the grassroots campaign for change he advocates.
Critics have linked the comment to the furor over racially tinged sermons by Obama's former priest Jeremiah Wright, and his own remark that some working-class Americans were "bitter" and turned to guns and God.
They have also repeatedly raised Obama's past reluctance to wear a star and stripes lapel pin to cast doubt on his love of country.
In an apparent bid to disarm that potential campaign snare, Obama has sported the flag on his suit at several recent events.
The suggestion that the African-American senator is somehow out of the US mainstream could have implications for a general election, where voters often seek to personally identify with candidates vying to be their head of state.
The Tennessee ad, which has nearly half a million hits on video-sharing website YouTube, was the latest sign that some Republicans sense Obama's wife might be a political liability.
In the spot, Michelle Obama's statement was repeatedly juxtaposed with comments by 'regular' Americans, relating their pride in their country.
One middle-aged man is pictured shooting pool, in a room ringed by racks on the walls holding guns.
"Hi, I'm Bob Pope and I'm proud to be an American ... because of the right to worship God anywhere I choose to, and (because of) the second amendment, I have got the right to keep and bear arms," he says.
Republican presumptive nominee John McCain has signaled that he wants the campaign to take an elevated tone, free of personal attacks.
But back in February, it was his wife, ironically, who led the attack against Michelle Obama, jumping at the chance to lay out her own patriotism.
"I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier. I'm very proud of my country," said Cindy McCain, a millionaire heiress and chairwoman of one of America's top beer distributors.
Cindy McCain has been caught in campaign brushfires herself in recent weeks, taking heat from the Democratic National Committee for refusing to release her tax returns.
"This is a privacy issue. My husband is the candidate. I am not the candidate," she said on NBC News this month.
Both spouses can take at least some comfort in the fact that they are not the first potential first ladies to feel the lash of hardball campaign politics.
The most notorious recent example is Obama's primary opponent -- Hillary Clinton, who was a lightning rod of controversy during her husband Bill's 1992 run for the White House.
She was dogged for years by her famous comment that she could have "stayed home and baked cookies," instead of pursuing her own career.
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