Cindy McCain or Michelle Obama--in an unofficial battle for the position of First Lady, they flail away at each other.

The energy discharges itself like a thunderstorm whenever Michelle Obama steps onstage. Leaps might be a better way to describe the way the 44 year-old wife of the Democratic presidential nominee approaches the podium.

She obviously enjoys her entrances, but she also gets furious on occasion. She speaks about little black girls who have fewer opportunities than their white counterparts. “For many people in this country, the bar is set too high.”

Michelle Obama makes her audiences laugh and she brings them to tears. But she offers targets as well. She made one verbal slip a few months ago after her husband closed in on the nomination, saying that for the first time she was proud of her country.

That was a mistake. But despite the passage of time and her repeated retractions of that statement, the Republicans never miss an opportunity to accuse her of not being patriotic enough.

Recently, the other woman in the running for the position of First Lady joined in the chorus of criticism. “I don’t know why she said that,” Cindy McCain said in a recent ABC interview. “I only know that I’ve always been proud of my country.”

For the candidates, the wives are important campaign tools. They may not make the difference between victory and defeat for their husbands, but they influence their public images. They can help their husbands or, with thoughtless comments, hurt them. Accordingly, they are carefully guided by campaign advisors.

Cindy McCain usually only takes the microphone in order to introduce her husband to the crowd. She comes off cool and remote in her perfectly tailored outfits, her face made mask-like by makeup. But when she speaks, the 53 year-old radiates a girlish charm. She tells the story of the orphan baby she brought to America from Bangladesh after her visit as part of a charity team. John McCain was surprised, but he had to accept that he would now have an adopted daughter in addition to the three children they had together plus the three from his previous marriage.

There are worlds of difference between the women whose husbands are vying for the White House. Between the middle-class house in Chicago that was home to Michelle and her brother Craig and the mansion in Phoenix where Cindy grew up as the only child of brewery millionaire Jim Hensley; between Harvard law school where Michelle worked and the special school where Cindy worked as a teacher; between their husbands’ election to office: Michelle fell in love with Barack Obama, same age as she and also a lawyer. At 24, Cindy married the Vietnam veteran John McCain, 18 years her senior.

Neither Michelle Obama nor Cindy McCain is likely to pursue a political career as did their predecessor, Hillary Clinton. But neither is the more inconspicuous current First Lady, Laura Bush, their role model. Michelle Obama will find it hard to contain her thirst for action. And Cindy McCain, who sits on the boards of several charity foundations and has probably traveled more extensively than her senator husband, wants to use the White House as a platform for her social projects.

Charity work sounds a more appropriate activity for the traditional spouse of a presidential candidate. But when not engaged in her charity work, Cindy McCain reaches for the telephone and speaks as president of her inherited family business, making decisions with her management board. Her impeccable exterior hides personal tragedies. Eight years ago Cindy shocked the country when she told of her addiction to prescription drugs. She overcame her addiction as well as the effects of a stroke.

Michelle Obama is, on the other hand, not the hard-nosed career woman she sometimes appears to be. Just like Cindy McCain, she didn’t want to accompany her husband to Washington when he was elected to the senate, mainly because she wanted her children to grow up in a natural environment. Despite her busy appointment calendar, she always makes sure she spends enough time with her daughters, Malia and Sasha. At the beginning of the campaign she enjoyed talking about their daily lives. Now the nation knows that Barack doesn’t put the butter back in the fridge when he’s done with it.

Those sorts of anecdotes that tend to make the candidate look silly have been stricken from Michelle’s repertoire. In order to avoid any future missteps, a personal advisor now counsels the candidate’s wife. And to make completely sure she’s correctly understood, Michelle recently said on a television talk show, “Naturally I’m proud of my country. My story could not have happened anywhere but in America.”