Oct. 21, 2008 -- Sen. Barack Obama has made the very personal decision to leave the campaign trail for two days to visit his ailing 85-year-old grandmother in Hawaii. But with 14 days left in the campaign, observers say, even the personal becomes political.
Although a candidate has never before stopped campaigning this close to Election Day, Obama's running mate and surrogates will remain on the trail, and more important, his ads will continue to run.Obama decided Monday night to cancel campaign stops on Thursday and Friday and fly to Hawaii to see his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, the woman he affectionately calls "Toot," short for the Hawaiian word "tutu" for grandparent. Dunham, who pretty much raised Obama, has been ailing lately and her brother, Charles Payne, told The Associated Press, she recently fell and broke her hip.
Obama will skip scheduled rallies in Wisconsin and Iowa. His weekend rallies have been monster events. Last weekend Obama drew 75,000 at a Kansas City rally and 100,000 at St. Louis rally later on the same day. Obama returns to the campaign trail Saturday.
Those crowds will have to wait, however, as Obama flies to see the woman that he has suggested in speeches and books was the most influential person in his life as he grew up.
"That part of me that's hardheaded, I get from her. She's tough as nails," Obama recently told ABC News' Diane Sawyer.
Leaving the campaign with only two weeks to go would appear to leave the field to his rival, Sen. John McCain, during the crucial homestretch of the presidential race. But it also has the potential of showing Obama's family side at a time when both candidates are under constant attack by their opponents.
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, the former director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford presidential libraries, said, "Never in the modern era has a candidate done anything like this," referring to Obama's decision to stop campaigning during the last stretch.
"For a lot of people, this will be a defining moment," Smith said
"This can only help Obama," said Torie Clarke, an ABC News political consultant. "Everyone can understand the need to visit a sick relative. There is no doubt that this was a decision made for personal reasons, but it gives his campaign the opportunity to remind voters of his unique past and heritage."
In two memoirs, and routinely along the trail, Obama has addressed that heritage and spoken openly about his grandmother, a white woman who raised him after his Kenyan father left his family and his mother went abroad to study.
Obama invoked his grandmother in what many consider the definitive speech of his campaign, an address on race in America delivered in March in Philadelphia after weeks of being hounded for his relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama made the personal political and talked about how his grandmother could both love him and at times be racist.
"I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Obama's Grandmother Was a Real-Life 'Rosie the Riveter'
Opponents have used Obama's name and his Kenyan father's ethnicity to portray the Democrat as an outsider. A series of Internet rumors inferred that Obama is a Muslim and Arab. He is neither.
"Obama has a very compelling family story, and any opportunity to remind people of that helps," said Clarke. "Attention on his grandmother neutralizes and lessens questions that he is an outsider with a strange, unknowable family."
Obama has spoken about his grandparents on the trail. While his grandfather fought in Patton's army in World War II, his grandmother worked assembling airplanes, a real life "Rosie the Riveter."
"My grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line, and my mother was born at Fort Leavenworth. After my grandfather stood up for his country, America stood by him. He went to college on the GI Bill. He bought his first home with help from FHA [Federal Housing Authority], and moved his family west to Hawaii, where he and my grandmother helped raise me," he said at a rally in June.
Later she would "work her way up from a secretary at a bank to become one of the first women bank vice presidents in the state," Obama said.
Obama, along with his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Malia and Sasha, last saw Dunham in Hawaii in August, with daily visits confined to her apartment because Dunham was too frail.
Obama, then acutely aware of her health, suggested that it was important for his children to spend time with their great-grandmother given her advanced years.
"I'm going to see my grandma who I haven't seen in almost 18-19 months," he said the day before the family took off for its vacation. "And, you know, who's getting to the age where I want to make sure that I'm spending time with her on a consistent basis and so that she could see her great-grandchildren. "
In April, Obama said Dunham was suffering from osteoporosis and was going blind, but Dunham's condition seems to have worsened, and he made his decision to visit after speaking with his half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng Sunday.
Dunham was reportedly hospitalized after a fall and "things have taken a serious turn," U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, told the Honolulu Advertiser. "It's an accumulation of several difficulties. She's faced a lot of challenges," he told the paper.
The Illness May Help Obama Connect With Undecideds
Smith, the presidential historian, said Obama's willingness to hurry to Hawaii for his grandmother could help him with undecided voters.
"If you're an undecided voter because you just don't quite know this guy -- you're not against him, but you don't have a gut instinct about him -- you might just be impressed by the fact that he would be willing to take a moment from the pursuit of ambition to do something everyone can understand and everyone can relate to," Smith told ABCNews.com.
"It suggests that there are things more important than winning an election. You can't communicate that aspect of your character in a campaign commercial," he said.
Senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs told "Good Morning America" today that Obama's strategists know the detour "comes at a cost on the campaign trail, but Sen. Obama believes his family comes first.
"She has meant the world to Barack Obama. She has poured everything she had into raising him and making him into the person that he is today," Gibbs said. "He just feels it's tremendously important that he get down there and spend time with her, as she's very sick."
The campaign of Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival, expressed sympathy for Obama.
"It's easy to forget that these are families running for president," McCain spokeswoman Nicole Wallace told "GMA." "Everyone's thoughts and prayers are with them. Certainly, Sen. McCain has Sen. Obama and his grandmother in his thoughts."
Obama's visit will probably do little to help or hurt McCain, Clarke said.
"This will make a neutral impact on the McCain campaign," she said.
"What counts here is not whether Barack Obama is out of the media spotlight for a day or two, what counts is what he is spending on paid media. He is outspending McCain by two or three times on advertising in the battleground states," she said.
Obama Will Return to the Campaign Trail on Saturday
Obama will attend a newly scheduled event Thursday morning in Indianapolis, Ind., after which Obama will fly to Honolulu. He will remain in Hawaii Thursday and most of Friday with his grandmother in her apartment in Oahu, the same building where he lived while attending high school nearby.
Obama's wife and daughters will not be joining him on this trip. Instead, his wife will be taking his place on the campaign trail, holding events solo in Akron and Columbus, Ohio, Friday.
Gibbs said that the campaign would continue in Obama's absence. Obama will resume his campaign in a Western swing state Saturday.