They are to be seated along a conference table, six of them in their practical pumps and tasteful dresses, for an unprecedented face-off in Des Moines today. Several hundred eager Iowans have purchased $10 admission tickets. A battalion of hungry political reporters is expected to converge on Drake University -- some from as far away as Germany and France -- poised to record every nuance.

A debate, perhaps, on nuclear disarmament? The budget deficit? Maybe even the Robert Bork nomination? Well, not exactly. After struggling with the format for several months, the Polk County Democratic Party made its decision: The wives of the Democratic presidential candidates (all are expected except Jackie Jackson) would have five minutes to say how each would see her role as first lady.

No questions will be entertained from the audience.

"Oh, it's so sad," says Jeanne Simon, wife of candidate Paul Simon. "Why not the issues ... I try not to use the term 'first lady.' I just despise it."

"Debate?" asks Tipper Gore, wife of candidate Albert Gore. "What -- the bombardier first ladies? I mean, what would we debate? Rebut one another on who uses what floor wax? Or who's taking the longest leave of absence from her law firm? It's inappropriate to debate issues, and I don't think it's what the American people really want."

Which raises the obvious question: Just what do the American people want from these women?

Gore's and Simon's comments are symptomatic of the delicate dilemma that has confronted political wives ever since Edith Wilson stepped in to virtually run the government for her sickly husband Woodrow -- and never lived it down.

The political wife of the '50s, '60s and even '70s had a well-defined role for herself as helpmate. The candidate's wife of the '80s has many more choices before her, in a political arena that scrutinizes every choice she makes. More than ever, the wives must walk a fine line between assertiveness and reserve.

Said Sharon Deardon, organizer of today's forum: "When you do something for the first time, you have to be careful. We just didn't feel like we could get into the husbands' issues."

'There's a Schizophrenia Out There'

No one doubts it: There is more focus than ever on the candidate's wife -- the one appointment the public knows with certainty he will make as president.

As Nancy Reagan's influence has been chronicled and criticized, press and public have been educated about what White House intimates have always known: You can't dismiss the influence of the person who goes to bed with the president of the United States. Mrs. Reagan may have endlessly pooh-poohed the notion that her influence went beyond the selection of new china. But she will be remembered as the first lady who drummed her husband's chief of staff out of office.

This brighter spotlight, of course, reflects a complicated change in society's view of political women. Lee Hart many have been the consummate traditionalist, publicly professing her love and support in the face of her husband's philandering. But today's ideal political spouse is seen as not just a supportive wife and devoted mother, but an independent woman as well. And many of the current candidates' wives are truly representative of the "new generation" their husbands are desperate to reach.

This is an age, after all, when Geraldine Ferraro can be nominated for vice president, when Rep. Pat Schroeder can gear up for a presidential run, when whispers are heard that Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole might make a better chief executive than her spouse.

The 1988 wives tend to be younger and less conventional than their forerunners, and many have careers developed throughout their husbands' political ascents.

Hattie Babbitt is a partner in a Phoenix law firm. Kitty Dukakis taught dance during her husband's first term as Massachusetts governor and now directs a Harvard program on the use of public space. Jill Biden has a master's degree in education and teaches emotionally disturbed children. Tipper Gore has been crisscrossing the country trying to stamp out offensive lyrics in rock music. Among the Republicans, Elise du Pont is an attorney who served as a senior administrator for the Agency for International Development, while Elizabeth Dole has come to symbolize the ultimate career woman.

None is an anomaly by current marital standards. Yet behind their college degrees and independent personas lurks an uneasiness about what exactly is expected of them.

"I tried to put myself in Lee Hart's place," says Simon, 65. "I could see myself doing that, standing by my man ... But the younger women got very upset, saying, 'She doesn't have to take that' ... This is a very transitional time for political wives."

"This is the first time so many women have to spend time actually rethinking the roles," says Joanne Kemp, 50, who is happy to call herself a "homemaker" but empathizes with those who don't. "It's a difficult position for a woman who has probably poured more than 50 percent of herself into her career to all of a sudden have to say, 'My husband's career is more important.' "

Which is precisely what many of them are doing. Babbitt, Biden, Dukakis and Gore all were careful to say in interviews that their roles as mothers came first, closely followed by their devotion to their husbands' candidacies.

In fact, Hattie Babbitt, 39, who practiced law full time while her husband was governor of Arizona, was quick to play down the importance of her work. "It is a lot more useful to be involved in a presidential campaign than taking another 200 depositions," she said during a recent lunch. "I have a good law practice, but that doesn't mean I want to do it for the next 30 years."

In some ways, these women are all caught between generations as the American voter helps define them. "A wife can be independent in every way except her political viewpoint," says pollster Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter Hart Research. "The voters don't want to elect a co-president or co-governor."

Says Kitty Dukakis: "I do think there's a schizophrenia out there ... We're not sure where we are going."

'Mercifully, She Makes No Speeches'

What's the best way for a campaign to use a candidate's wife? Jody Powell, press secretary in the Carter White House, once jokingly related the conventional wisdom as follows: First you disable her so that she needs hospitalization -- preferably in a comatose state -- until the campaign ends, so she can't interfere. Then you set up weekly photo opportunities with the candidate at her bedside.

It wasn't ever quite that bad, of course. But while the wife of yesteryear may have been viewed as a necessary prop, her true usefulness was usually ignored. "Excess baggage," Abigail McCarthy has written, sums up the way campaign aides and the media viewed her during her ex-husband's 1968 race.

McCarthy quotes Time magazine on Ethel Kennedy: "'Mercifully, she makes no speeches.' "

The wives of McCarthy's generation were meant to be smiling heads, positioned acquiescently at the candidate's side to highlight his family ties and reaffirm his orthodox sexuality. Meddling in staff and policy decisions, as Keke Anderson reportedly did during husband John's 1980 campaign, or sitting in on Cabinet meetings, as Rosalynn Carter did following husband Jimmy's election, was taboo.

Says Powell: "It was as if Rosalynn were presiding over the meetings, when she was just interested in what was going on." Carter's top aides, he says, "were all aware of the perception problem ... But really, what do you do? Tell a woman who has a mind just not to use it?"

Eugene McCarthy seems to have thought so. He recalls an unusual debate among the wives during his first race for Congress in 1948. "It was bad," he says. "My opponent's wife broke down in tears. It was sort of like mud wrestling before it was over ... I finally said to Abigail, 'No more debates.' It's totally irrelevant to the process."

Says Abigail McCarthy today: "I used to be in absolute terror that I would do Gene in."

Her fears were not groundless. In 1972, when Jane Muskie reportedly told a planeful of female reporters, "Let's tell dirty jokes," her remark contributed to Ed Muskie's slipping fortunes. The Manchester Union Leader's William Loeb quoted it in an editorial titled "Big Daddy's Jane"; the candidate cried as he denounced Loeb for this and other attacks; and George McGovern wound up with the nomination. Later, Betty Ford's extraordinary candor about her psychiatric counseling was an issue at her husband's vice presidential confirmation hearings.

Bethine Church recalls telling an interviewer during the 1976 race how her husband Frank always told her that everyone in the family "pulls the plow." Church was quickly reprimanded by the Idaho senator's advisers for sounding too strong. "There are so many booby traps out there," she says.

"We were expected to be little Pat Nixons -- there but not really heard -- and not quite like Mamie Eisenhower, who never said a word and never appeared in public," says Ella Udall, wife of Rep. Morris Udall, who ran for president in 1976. Udall says she was also expected to quit her administrative job on Capitol Hill when she married the rising congressman from Arizona.

This election cycle, though, Jill Biden tells voters she'll continue teaching from the White House, while Kitty Dukakis is hailed for her candor in admitting a longtime amphetamine addiction she kicked five years ago.

Certainly, wives have come a long way from the days when Jackie Kennedy hardly even campaigned. This progress is due in no small part to Rosalynn Carter's efforts in 1976. Carter was a rare bird in those days, showing up alone at county council meetings around the country to talk about Jimmy. "She cried before every speech, out of nerves," Powell recalls.

A decade later, it's not unusual for a candidate's wife to have a full complement of support staff -- generally including a press secretary and a scheduler -- and to carry a thick briefing book. With "time and money being short," says Powell, campaigns are realizing that "a wife is a great surrogate."

Hattie Babbitt recalls a recent Iowa appearance at which the person introducing her neglected to mention her background. "By the end of my talk, a number of people said they had heard I was a lawyer and that I had done this or that," she says. "They seemed to genuinely want to know what I was about."

"People are very interested what kind of family life we have, because they want to compare Jack's life to their own," says Joanne Kemp.

Campaign consultant Robert Squier attributes part of this curiosity to the startling dichotomy between the public picture Gary Hart painted of his marriage and the private reality that emerged.

"Now the candidate is expected to back up the pretty picture of the wife, the kids and the dog at home," Squier says. "The voters want to know what's behind the photographs, and they're looking to the wives to tell them."

Coming On Too Strong?

Tipper Gore, in most ways, has been the traditional political wife. When her husband was elected to Congress 12 years ago, she gave up her part-time job at The Tennessean in Nashville to become a full-time congressional spouse.

She says the first months were hard, so she looked for her own productive niche. Ultimately, she found it in a crusade to clean up rock music. She's even published a book, "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society."

But now, in an ironic twist, she finds herself having to explain in interview after interview why she is not a liability to her husband's presidential efforts. Friends say she is quite sensitive about her reputation as a "kooky housewife" advocating censorship.

"I've been working on these issues for years," Gore says. "Al's been running since April 10."

True. But she's learned that the idea of the dual-career couple with separate interests has been slow to catch on in politics. "I understand that within the political sphere, the definitions are narrower," she says. "You live and die by the sword together."

It's for this reason, some Democrats believe, that Transportation Secretary Dole (who declined to be interviewed for this article) may prove a liability to Sen. Dole. She may simply appear too strong. The voters -- and even the media -- may not be ready for an indisputably influential spouse.

In a scathing column on Nancy Reagan last March, William Safire wrote that the president was being made "to appear wimpish and helpless by the political interference of his wife." He went on to to write disparagingly that "what Nancy says, goes. This is not Rosalynn Carter, 'the Steel Magnolia,' stiffening her husband's spine; this is an incipient Edith Wilson, unelected and unaccountable ..."

"It's a bum rap," says Elise du Pont. And Nancy Reagan herself is even fighting back these days.

In a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, she said, "It's silly to suggest my opinions should not carry some weight with a man I've been married to for 35 years ... Don't kid yourselves, it's been that way ever since we've had presidential wives." She'd begun the speech by joking that she was so busy "staffing the White House and overseeing arms talks" that she almost hadn't showed up.

Levity aside, the candidates' wives say they're in a definite double bind these days: Whatever traditional wifely qualities they are expected to exhibit, they nonetheless must be well informed on the issues. The questions have switched, Gore says, from "what the first lady wore at a dinner to how Al feels about arms control." Says Jane Gephardt: "I've really had to stretch myself to new dimensions."

They say they answer policy questions as best they can, then tell voters that someone from the candidate's staff will get back to them. And in public, at least, a candidate's wife is always in agreement with her husband's position. Appearing on "CBS News Nightwatch" recently, Babbitt, Dukakis, Gore and Pat Haig said they would never dream of differing with their husbands on the stump.

Privately is another story. "Michael can choose, as he has in the past, to listen to me or he can choose not to," says Dukakis, who like Nancy Reagan has felt the sting of criticism for being an influential wife. She says flatly of such criticism: "It's sexist."

It's a brave new world and it's the same old world as well. Still, anyone who thinks the role of the political wife hasn't changed need only listen to this Voice of the Campaign Past:

"I said in '68 that I had a better dog than Bobby Kennedy, but I didn't bring him into it," Eugene McCarthy recalls. "Dogs deserve respect and so do wives. They shouldn't be exploited for political purpose. A candidate should make his own case."