Newt Gingrich Campaign Scuffle Puts Political Wives in Spotlight

Candidates' wives play a critical but challenging role.

ByABC News
June 10, 2011, 12:21 PM

June 10, 2011— -- It can be unrewarding, relentless work that most women think twice about before signing up. And even though it might come with perks -- money, fame and possible influence -- the public demands and scrutiny can easily outweigh the benefits.

There's nothing new about the pressure that's cast on political wives, but it has taken on a whole new meaning in today's era of instant communication.

The latest person to learn that is Callista Gingrich, who has come under much scrutiny since 16 of her husband's senior aides resigned en masse Thursday. Many of them blamed her for being too controlling of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's schedule, insisting he go on vacation instead of dedicating time to his campaign and fundraising, and, they say, treating his staff like interns.

But many observers say politicians' wives often get caught up in political wranglings whether they are responsible for such kerfuffles or not.

And it's often challenging to balance the dual roles. In Gingrich's case, she married the former House speaker after the end of his political career and, thus, has little experience with campaigns and Washington insiders.

"It's easy to blame the wife but his problems have preceded Callista," ABC News' political director Amy Walter said. "She's the symptom more than the problem. Newt's problem is, at this point, he lacks the discipline to run the kind of campaign that presidential candidates run."

Still, spouses can often tip the balance. In this instance, Callista Gingrich might not have been the deciding factor but discontent with her was "additive to the problems that the campaign was having in trying to generate some forward momentum," former Gingrich adviser Rich Galen said on "Top Line" today.

Whether they like it or not, political wives play a crucial role in a candidate's campaign and in determining its success.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' wife, Cheri, reportedly vetoed his decision to make a 2012 bid. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's wife, Marsha, has publicly said that the thought of her husband's running for president "horrifies" her and that it would be "a huge sacrifice for a family to make."

The public scrutiny on a family that comes in modern-day campaigning plays a key part in discouraging many wives, analysts say.

"The increased scrutiny, invasion of privacy and compliance with campaign finance and regulatory rules are causing more political wives and would-be political wives to rise up and object to their husbands pursuing that kind of career," said Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and author of "What Women Really Want."

Campaigns today are not just about the candidates but their entire families, especially the spouse.

First lady Michelle Obama famously went back and forth for months about her husband's decision to run for president, given the impact it would have on her personal life and family. Once he did enter the race, she wasn't spared from the public eye. From her fashion sense to her comments about being proud of her country "for the first time" in her adult life, Obama was in the spotlight just as much as her candidate husband.

"Voters have a natural curiosity to learn more about the person behind the politician," Conway said. "A wife, after all, is a window into the soul of a politician's judgment, choices and human side once he sheds the podium, coat and tie."

The task is a challenging one for political wives. Not only do they have to maintain a certain public persona, they also have to be careful about how they get involved with the campaign and balance tensions with campaign staff, which almost always arise.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, learned that lesson in the last election cycle when she was assailed by many in the GOP for being a "trophy wife" and too controlling. Even the late Elizabeth Edwards, who many thought helped make husband John a more compelling and likeable candidate, clashed often with his staff members.

"Everybody who runs for office, no matter the level of office, has tensions between their family and their campaign staff," Walter said. "It is a rare campaign where there's not some tension."