By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
LONG BEACH, Calif., Oct. 23 -- Despite news reports casting them as leading voices in their husbands' campaigns, the spouses of several of the 2008 presidential candidates played down their influence at a joint appearance Tuesday.
At a first-of-its-kind forum moderated by Maria Shriver, the television journalist and wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), five would-be first ladies -- Elizabeth Edwards, Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama, Ann Romney and Jeri Thompson -- each talked about balancing family life with her husband's presidential ambitions before more than 14,000 women at a convention center here during the annual Conference for Women.
Despite the outspoken Shriver's repeated attempts to draw the wives into conversations about political strategy, they refused to bite.
"I'm not even qualified to do any of the other stuff," Thompson, the wife of former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), said of campaign strategy. Edwards said speculation about her own tactical role is "completely overplayed."
Former advisers to both Edwards, who is married to former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), and Thompson have implied repeatedly that the women are heavily involved in shaping their husbands' political lives and push out aides who get in their way.
When Shriver, who is not shy about pushing her own policy views as California's first lady, asked if the women had changed their husbands' minds on any policy issue, none of the five volunteered an example.
"Anytime you say something, it gets exploded into a bigger story . . . that becomes 'you are masterminding the campaign,' " Edwards said. "All you're doing is expressing what's best for your spouse as a spouse."
When asked if she had argued with her husband's campaign staff, Thompson noted her insistence that a bus they would be using to travel across Iowa include a table where she could change her infant's diapers. The request was eventually accommodated.
"I weigh in all the time, and nobody listens to me," said Romney, noting her requests to reduce the demands on her husband, former Massachusetts Republican governor Mitt Romney. "I don't have any input on the strategy or the messaging."
McCain, noting how busy her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is between his role in Congress and the campaign, said that "the last thing I was going to do was to talk about issues with him" after he came home on a recent Friday. Cindy McCain is a close ally of Rick Davis, who emerged as her husband's campaign manager after a staff shake-up over the summer.
The wives, many of whom had never met before the event, showed no signs of the tension on display when their husbands get together for debates. The only real policy difference noted was when Edwards said her husband had come out with a universal health-care plan first, a dig at Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who released similar plans later. Judith Giuliani, the wife of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), and former president Bill Clinton turned down invitations to attend.
While most of the spouses seemed comfortable, Thompson, who had gone back and forth about attending, seemed the most tentative.
Thompson rarely smiled and spoke only when Shriver directed questions to her. She said she is "absolutely" scared of the campaign.
"I'm afraid of embarrassing Fred," Thompson said. "That would be my big fear."
Romney and Obama spoke often, reprising phrases they invoke regularly on campaign stops. Romney noted the frequent, affectionate e-mails she gets from her five sons about how well she is doing on the stump, while Obama talked about the challenge of balancing the campaign with raising two young daughters. Obama said she is constantly talking to her daughters about the dog the couple has promised to get the girls as a reward for being cooperative as their father seeks the presidency.
"They ask about the dog every day," Obama said. "I said: 'Look, you're getting the dog. Knock it off.' "