Feb. 7, 2007 -- When Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., officially enters the stressful world of presidential politics this Saturday, he will be trying his hardest to resist the urge to smoke those Marlboro Red cigarettes he has relied upon for years.
Instead, he has pledged to his wife, Michelle, that he will chew Nicorette gum.
Before the Run, Obama Needs to Quit
Obama may face several daunting challengers in the months to come -- Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a prying media, a conservative attack machine and the tricky politics of race. But none may prove as mighty a foe as his nicotine habit.
"I've never been a heavy smoker," Obama told the Chicago Tribune. "I've quit periodically over the last several years. I've got an ironclad demand from my wife that in the stresses of the campaign I don't succumb. I've been chewing Nicorette strenuously."
Obama aides say that the main reason Michelle Obama has been pushing so hard for her husband to quit the demon weed is for health reasons, but of course for any public figure, one also has to factor in the image of the habit -- either out of concerns he would be setting a bad example, or that he may turn off some voters.
An unscientific sampling of men and women on the street indicates that the public wants him to quit, though they do not consider a cigarette habit to be a disqualification for office, however much cigarettes have been linked to cancer, heart disease and impotence.
"Serving as a role model for the rest of the country," remarked one woman. "Yeah, I think he needs to quit smoking if he is going to run for president."
Added Sue Wycoff of St. Paul, Minn., "having a daughter who died from lung cancer, we kind of feel strongly that smoking is not smart."
"But he's got two years to become a reformed smoker," chimed in her husband, Peter. "And those are the most adamant people."
"And he is not an alcoholic," added Sue. "That would be worse."
National Media Butts In
Obama has admitted to cocaine and marijuana use in his teenage years, but it's his use of cigarettes that has merited national media attention.
The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that his penchant for butts makes the Democrat "intriguingly imperfect," while Fox News Channel's John Gibson has called it "Obama's dirty little secret" and argued that it makes him wonder "what else do we not know about Barack Obama?" (This literally days before Gibson helped spread the false smear that Obama attended an Indonesian madrassa as a youth.)
Clearly mindful of the image issues smoking may cause, Obama has been careful to keep images of him with what health advocates call "cancer sticks" out of the newspapers.
Unlike Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, members of the media have been unable to find photographic images of Obama smoking even a cigar or pipe. The political gossip Web site Wonkette.com has even offered reward money for anyone who can produce a picture of Obama smoking.
"For someone who's known to be a smoker and for a senator who's photographed all the time, it's odd that there aren't actually pictures of him smoking," said Wonkette editor Alex Pareene.
Not really, though -- Wonkette has also tried in vain to obtain smoking photographs of House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, an unrepentant chain smoker whose Barclays aromatically fill the area outside his Capitol Hill office as if it were an enormous marble ashtray.
Other rumored present or past smokers in political life -- first lady Laura Bush, former Vice President Al Gore -- have assiduously kept any signs of the habit away from any prying shutterbugs.
Health Advocates See Education Opportunity
Some anti-smoking advocates want Obama to come forward even more publicly to discuss his habit.
"I think it would be an enormous first step forward if he would come all the way out of the closet and say, 'I smoke, I wish I didn't, I plan on quitting again, I've tried this many times,'" said Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation. "Because if you dig deep behind the story, my guess is that's probably the reality, that he wants to quit and has tried many times."
Now the big question for the junior senator: Will Nicorette be enough to get him through Iowa and New Hampshire? Or will he inhale?
Matt Stuart and John Cochran contributed to this report.