Wives of Candidates Debate Their Roles

Five women whose husbands are competing for the White House joined together for the first time ever Tuesday to discuss their roles in the 2008 presidential campaign at a women's conference organized by former NBC journalist turned California first lady Maria Shriver.

Shriver, who put her own career aspirations on hold when her husband decided to run for governor, led what turned out to be a somewhat candid discussion between Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Jeri Thompson, Cindy McCain and Ann Romney.

"What you are witnessing up here ... is history," Shriver told the audience of 14,000 mostly women. "Never before in the history of our country of presidential politics have the spouses ... gathered together to talk about their lives, to talk about the campaign trail, to talk about what it's like when someone in your family gets up and runs for president," Shriver said.


No-shows included Judith Giuliani, who has maintained a low-profile as of late, and former President Bill Clinton -- the potential first-ever White House first gentleman -- whose office said his schedule was too jam-packed with work for his international foundation to make it.

"We invited him to serve coffee but he was busy," joked Shriver.

The women spoke about struggling to define their roles in the 2008 campaign, and many of them revealed what it's like to be constantly evaluated as part of their husbands' campaigns and scrutinized in sometimes excruciating detail by the media.

Thompson: 'I'm Afraid of Embarrassing Fred'

When Shriver asked the women how active they are in the day-to-day strategy of their husband's campaign, Thompson, wife of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, demurred.


"I have a 1-year-old ... and I think most of y'all know how much time and effort that takes," Thompson said. "That's my main role. Other than that I do what I can to do what the campaign asks me. I'm not even qualified to do any of the other stuff."

Shriver pressed Thompson on her involvement in the campaign, noting the media has portrayed the former political lobbyist as everything from a trophy wife to the campaign mastermind.

"We know our husbands best so we ought to be able to say, 'I think this is best for him' ... but for overall strategy, no, I don't think I am," she said.

Thompson did say she put her foot down, demanding the campaign figure out a way to get a changing table on the campaign bus.

"And you know what? They did it," she said.

Likening the campaign to "walking down the street without clothes on," Thompson admitted she is scared.

"I'm afraid of embarrassing Fred. I would be terrified of hurting him. You don't want to let everybody down," she said.

Edwards: If It Ended Up on Drudge, I Didn't Say It Right!

Asked if she had any influence on her husband's policy positions, Edwards quipped, "I haven't so far!"

Elizabeth Edwards publicly split with her husband's policy on same sex marriage. He opposes it. She doesn't.

However, Edwards said the media is often too quick to draw some larger meaning from advice spouses give to their political husbands.

"The role of the strategist is completely overplayed," she said.

"Anytime you say anything ... it gets exploded into a bigger story," Edwards said. "You have to do what's in your heart and let the chips fall where they may."

However, Edwards admitted she feels terrible when she believes she is responsible for a bad headline in the media.

"If it ended up on the front page of Drudge, I didn't say it right," she said, laughing.

Obama agreed and said she rejoices when she goes through the press clippings and finds no stories about her.

Asked if they agreed with former President Clinton, who told voters in 1992 that they would be getting "two for the price of one," Edwards said she disagreed.

"I think they're voting for the candidates," she said. "I try to be a good surrogate to try to convince people to go listen to him speak."

McCain Said Campaigning Brings Her Closer to Husband

McCain, whose husband ran for the Republican nomination in 2000, said she thinks it's a fine line.

"I think the American people truly are electing both people, but from the spouse point of view, not in a leadership or decision making aspect."

McCain said the campaign has brought her and her husband closer because they are each other's greatest supporters and greatest critics. But campaigning for president becomes easier the second time, she said.

"Since 2000, I think I'm more comfortable in my skin, politically and other ways, I've learned to say no," McCain said.

Obama: 'Life Getting Sucked Out From Under You'

Michelle Obama, a newbie when it comes to presidential campaigns, admitted she worried early on what her husband's bid would mean for her family.

"You always worry about your life getting sucked out from under you," said Obama.

"I'm very practical. I have to know how is this gonna play out. Barack is like 'Let's do it!,'" she said. "And I'm like, 'What about school?'"

"For me it was always thinking about the practical elements. How are we gonna make sure our kids are solid?" she said.

Obama, who has scaled back her public affairs position at a Chicago hospital to campaign for her husband, said she finds it therapeutic to talk to women on the campaign trail about struggling to balance work and family.

"We are the public representation of the challenges that we are all facing. That's what all of us as women are trying to figure out," she said. "We're juggling and we're challenged and we're overworked and we're overscheduled and we're not getting the support that we need."

Obama said when the going gets tough she leans on her mother, who gives her advice.

"I hear, 'Don't sweat the small stuff,'" Obama said. "And, 'He's a good man, don't be mad at him!' My mom is a huge support for me."

Romney Weighs In on Husband's Schedule

Romney, wife of millionaire Republican candidate Mitt Romney, said she doesn't "have input in strategy or anything like that" but said she often lobbies to have events taken off her husband's schedule.

"I weigh in all the time," she said. "'Don't work him so hard! Look at the schedule, you're killing the man!'" But Romney said they never fix it.

Romney said politics can take an enormous toll.

"We are so busy keeping it together for everybody that we forget about ourselves," Romney said. "I've been diagnosed with MS, Elizabeth is battling breast cancer. You find finally your body has given up."

Romney said that while she loved meeting voters in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, she admitted she didn't like attending fundraisers.

"It's really very frustrating to have that be so much a part of the process," she said.

Romney said she was surprised to find how often she is asked to speak for her husband, but argued political spouses need more freedom to speak their minds.

"You have to be who you are and you have to have the flexibility and luxury of expressing ourselves as individuals," Romney said.

Setting Priorities

Romney said going into the campaign, she tried to set boundaries on her privacy.

"You want to keep your privacy but when you take this one you know you're going to lose some of your privacy," she said.

"Our life is gonna be an open book anyways, you might as well start practicing now," Edwards said.

Obama said her priority has been keeping their daughters' lives as normal as possible.

"I told my husband he has to be a good father as well and a good president," she said.

"We've got to start creating those boundaries for what's important. Even for the president of the United States."