They loved to hate Hillary Rodham Clinton. They loved to hate Teresa Heinz Kerry. And now, it appears, conservative voices are energetically taking on Michelle Obama.
"Mrs. Grievance" bellowed the cover of a recent National Review, which featured a photo of a fierce-looking Obama. The magazine's online edition titled an essay about her stump speech "America's Unhappiest Millionaire."
Michelle Malkin, the popular conservative blogger, called her "Obama's bitter half."
Even the relatively liberal online magazine Slate piled on. In a piece subtitled "Is Michelle Obama responsible for the Jeremiah Wright fiasco?" the contrarian Christopher Hitchens blamed her for her husband's pastor troubles since she was a member of the church first.
The would-be first lady does not make pronouncements about policy and has insisted that her priority in the White House would be her two young daughters. But Obama has an earthy sense of humor that sometimes gets her in trouble. And in speeches, she shares her belief that the country's spirit is broken and in need of repair -- by her husband, whom she often describes as "special."
It was an unscripted remark as she spoke in February about the enthusiastic response to his message of hope that set off conservatives: "And let me tell you something," she told a Wisconsin crowd. "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."
The Obama campaign clarified her remarks right away: "What she meant is that she's really proud at this moment because for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who've never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grass-roots movement for change."
But conservatives pressed the attack. John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, wrote that she had inadvertently revealed "the pseudo-messianic nature of the Obama candidacy."
The issue has shown no signs of going away.
In what could be seen as a test run for future attacks, the Tennessee Republican Party last month posted a Web video crosscutting her gaffe with declarations from average folks about how they've always been proud of their country.
Bill Hobbs, spokesman for the Tennessee GOP, said the party was stunned and delighted by the national publicity garnered by the cheaply made video, which coincided with a fundraising visit to the state by Michelle Obama.
"Our goal was to get the local media to play that clip of what she said back in February," Hobbs said. "The amazing thing was this thing blew up nationally before any local media even covered it."
A few days later, the candidate took umbrage.
"These folks should lay off my wife," said Sen. Barack Obama, as she sat beside him on ABC's "Good Morning America." "She loves this country, and for them to try to distort or play snippets of her remarks in ways unflattering to her I think is just low-class."
With Obama's complaint came a torrent of opinion about whether Michelle Obama was "fair game." Most commentators agreed that the 44-year-old Harvard Law School graduate -- a powerful surrogate for her husband who has made many high-profile solo appearances -- should not be immune. But the harsh tone has bothered many, even some who don't support her spouse.
"It's exactly why I hate politics," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "It's wrong. It's attempting to demonize someone who is very smart, very accomplished, but not totally tuned to the dangers of political discourse."
Mark Mellman, who was Sen. John F. Kerry's pollster when he ran for president in 2004, agreed: "I think it's despicable on one hand, but to be expected on the other."
Michelle Obama's antagonists ignore her when she says: "We have overcome so much in this country: racism, sexism, civil wars." Instead, they focus on: "Life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime." Or: "Our souls are broken. . . . The problem is us." Or: "We're too cynical. And we are still a nation that is too mean -- just downright mean to one another. We don't talk to each other in civil tones."
In the current climate -- where sound bites are recycled endlessly and context is ignored in favor of impact -- her more dour pronouncements have paved the way for brutal critiques.
"This is a huge debate among Republicans," said Malkin, who noted that until Obama's "proud" remark, "she was the new, glamorous Jackie O, and most stories focused on her pearls and wardrobe." But, Malkin added, "from what I've seen, despite her husband's admonition to lay off of her, she's not stopping what she's doing, and I don't think the rest of us should ignore her and treat her with kid gloves."
Picking on potential first ladies is nothing new.
In this campaign, Judith Giuliani, the third wife of former Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, was the subject of merciless profiles that depicted her as a husband-stealing social climber.