Running Mates

(Charlie Neibergall - AP)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This is one strange year for political spouses.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped out as the unabashed career-driven wife -- and paid a high price for it. Portrayed as power hungry, she spent the next decade trying to win back the homemakers and other voters she alienated.

But she also thrived, surviving two presidential terms as the commanding "wife of." Then, in one of life's more astonishing journeys, the first lady became a senator and, from there, a front-running presidential candidate.

This all leaves the current crop of feisty spouses teetering between dutiful mate and accomplished professional as they try to adapt an archaic stereotype to fit contemporary times.

Elizabeth Edwards will say in one breath that her job is made easier by the fact there are now "so many more female role models in careers like entertainment, the media and politics." But she will also say she's not about to make the same mistakes Clinton did.

"Hillary Clinton in 1992 is a lesson in what not to do," offers Edwards, also a lawyer by training, whose husband is one of Clinton's opponents in the presidential race. "She was dismissive of the range of options women had chosen, declaring, 'I don't bake cookies. . . . I don't stand by my man.' That turned off some people."

However Clinton handled the 1992 campaign, it is hard to deny that her choices have changed traditional expectations, freeing her successors to step out from the shadows. Working mothers in campaigns are no longer anomalies, and Elizabeth Kucinich has not been compelled to conceal being the first wife of a major party presidential candidate with a pierced tongue. The wives seem more empowered than ever to speak out, sometimes against Clinton.

The intensity and speed of the 2008 presidential cycle has thrust onto center stage prematurely these women who seem to make as much news as the candidates. The first lady contenders include lawyers, a business owner, a public affairs executive, a Red Cross official, a nurse, a political operative, a college professor and homemakers. The spotlight will be on five of them today in California, when they join Maria Shriver to talk about the choices and compromises all have made as political spouses. Also looming large in any discussion of mates this year, of course, is a former president masquerading as just another supportive spouse.

Janet Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor who has closely followed electoral politics, says there are "certainly a lot more activist wives these days.

"And there is a greater acceptance of assertive women that is consistent with other societal trends," she adds. "But there is still a divide in the country in what people want and expect. Look at how much people like Laura Bush."

While a likable spouse is still far down the list of what most voters seek in a candidate, recent polls show that the partner nonetheless cannot be ignored. In a recent Newsweek survey, 57 percent of respondents said that a candidate's relationship with his or her spouse is revealing about what kind of president that person would be, and nearly a quarter of voters in a May Fox News poll said their opinions of candidate spouses would be extremely or very important to their vote.

As the most prominent and important surrogates in a campaign, they no longer have the luxury of sitting it out, or of traveling exclusively at their husband's (or wife's) side. Most keep independent schedules often as rigorous as the candidate's, have support staffs and strategically use their voices to promote the candidate and sometimes criticize the opposition, while trying to hold on to their own identities.

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