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Edwards has pointedly swiped at Clinton, and Michelle Obama made it pretty clear she was reluctant to give up her career as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center. (She has compromised by curtailing her workload to about a fifth of what it was before.) Ann Romney, a proud homemaker, took a potshot at her husband's opponents who have been married more than once.
Bess Truman, they are not. The American public is no longer inclined to tolerate a disengaged spouse.
Laura Bush is the most popular member of the Bush administration and has approval ratings that are twice her husband's, but not necessarily because she's a traditional spouse. "There is a great deal of independence perceived in her case," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "She's not associated with the policies of her husband's administration like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were."
Today's spouse is expected to know the issues and to advocate, while also presenting the traditional imagery of family. "I don't know that what any of us of are doing is anything different than most American women, trying to prioritize," says Jeri Thompson, a former political operative and the wife of Republican candidate Fred Thompson.
But these women are leading their lives and prioritizing in full public view as they audition for first lady. "We do look at these women and try to get an idea of how they'll fit our image of the first lady as icon," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written numerous books on first ladies and political families.
Obama got off to a rocky start in her early speeches when she talked about her husband's dirty socks and how he was "stinky" in the morning, an image people perhaps might have found a little too human. Those references have since been dropped from her stump speech, and she's not giving many interviews these days.
Jackie Clegg Dodd, who runs her own international business-consulting firm and is the wife of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, said that it's critical not to create an "us versus them situation, homemakers versus career women," which she said Clinton did.
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Most know that their most important job is to keep the focus away from themselves and on the most positive aspects of the candidate. "There is no two-for-one," says Edwards, who gave up practicing law in 1996, in a reference to one of Bill Clinton's controversial lines in the 1992 race. "No one elected me to anything."
Apparently no one told Teresa Heinz Kerry that the candidate came first. In 2004, her introductions of her husband, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, were largely long-winded stories about herself. She also tended to talk about her late husband, John Heinz, a tad more in interviews than her current one. Eventually, her profile was lowered.
Judith Steinberg Dean became an issue in husband Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid for what she didn't do: campaign. Steinberg, a physician in Vermont, did not show up in public until right before the Iowa caucuses, at the urging of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who told the candidate that voters needed to see her. Darned if they do; darned if they don't. Campaigns and spouses negotiate this daily.