When Senator Barack Obama announced he would stop campaigning for more than 36 hours starting on Thursday, and would instead fly to Hawaii to visit his gravely ill grandmother, presidential historians noted that it was an unprecedented step for a candidate this close to Election Day, but they differed about the political risks of such a personal decision.
With just two weeks of campaign time remaining, Mr. Obama, who is ahead of his opponent, Senator John McCain, in most national polls, will travel five time zones and six hours west from the critical battleground state of Ohio. He will visit Madelyn Dunham, 85, the woman who raised him from the age of 10 until he went away to college.
Mr. Obama, who was campaigning in Florida on Tuesday, will make an appearance in Indianapolis on Thursday, but he canceled stops planned for Wisconsin and Iowa after that so that he can fly to Honolulu. His wife, Michelle Obama, will attend rallies in Akron and Columbus in his place.
Though Mr. Obama is leading in the polls, “there are still so many uncertainties, and 36 hours is a lot of time in two weeks,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. “Even having television campaigning isn’t the same as being there in person. There is a cost.”
Still, he said, the lost personal connection with undecided voters could be offset by the focus of media attention on Mr. Obama’s personal life and his compassion.
“One of the issues that Obama has faced is people literally knowing who he is,” Mr. Zelizer continued, noting that opponents had tried to raise questions in voters minds like “is he a socialist, aligned with terrorists?”
Steve Hess of the Brookings Institution also saw potential that the trip could help flesh out voters’ image of Mr. Obama. “They say he’s too mechanical, he’s cool, and here he does something terribly human,” Mr. Hess said in a telephone interview. “This isn’t planned by his strategist. He made the case in his book that she is very important to him. You can turn it around and ask, ‘What if he didn’t go?’ ”
In short, he said, “It’s an awful thing to say — but it’s a political plus.”
And besides, Mr. Hess added, “people in Ohio have grandmothers, too.”
Mr. Obama calls Ms. Dunham “Tutu,” a local term for grandparent that he sometimes shortens to “Toot.” Known as a trailblazer in her career, she was one of the Bank of Hawaii’s first two female vice presidents, and still lives in the Honolulu apartment where she raised Mr. Obama. He last visited in August after the Democratic convention.
When he spoke in March in response to swirling criticism of the views of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Mr. Obama cited Ms. Dunham and the emotionally complex issues of race within his own family:
I can no more disown him 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.
Mr. Obama’s trip is the latest interruption in a presidential race that has already seen Mr. McCain announce a brief suspension of his campaign to tackle the financial crisis in Washington, and Sen. Joe Biden scrap a day of vice presidential campaigning to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law.
But historians said that Mr. Obama’s step off the campaign trail has almost no precedent for a presidential candidate in modern times.
Doug Wead, the controversial presidential historian — he has written about presidential families and revealed in 2005 that he had secretly taped George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas — found a somewhat comparable situation from a century ago, involving William Howard Taft.
In 1907, Taft was vice president under Theodore Roosevelt, his close friend and advisor, who had promised not to run again and had chosen Taft as his preferred successor. Roosevelt urged Taft to make a round-the-world goodwill trip and get to know world leaders before the 1908 election. But there was a problem. “Taft was very much a mamma’s boy,” Mr. Wead said in a telephone interview today. “His mother was dying, and he thought that he had to cancel the trip.”
Louisa Torrey Taft would not hear of it, though. Mr. Wead said she wrote her son a letter that said, in effect, “No Taft to my knowledge has ever turned down a public duty to fulfill a private need.”
Taft went on the world tour, and his mother died while he was away, two months before her 80th birthday. Still, he won the presidency the following year, in an era before the extensive personal campaigning that marks today’s presidential politics.
Though cynical observers will be inclined to think that Mr. Obama is using the visit to engender voter sympathy, Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers, believes that is anything but the case.
“This is an individual whose influence was much greater on him than his mother,” Mr. Ross said in a telephone interview, referring to Mr. Obama and Ms. Dunham. “I read his two books and I got the audio books. You don’t get the incredible emotional tinge without such deep feelings.
“I think that perhaps inadvertently, and perhaps tragically, this is showing a side of him that even the best and most eloquent presentations of himself can’t achieve. This is no stunt. This is the act of a loving grandchild.”