In the Spotlight: Candidates' Wives at Convention

Speaking to packed crowds is nothing new for Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain. As the wives of the 2008 presidential candidates, both women have spent countless hours on the stump for their husbands.

But with the Democratic convention set to start Monday, and the Republican convention following close behind, both women are about to face their biggest audiences yet.

Speaking at the convention is a challenge and a pressure Shelia Tate knows very well, from her time as White House press secretary to former first lady Nancy Reagan. She also coached former first lady Barbara Bush as she prepared for her own convention speech in 1988.

"What's important about these speeches is that the convention platform that she has is the biggest opportunity she will have, the biggest audience she will have, for the entire campaign," Tate told ABC News. "She has the chance to convince millions of voters who are undecided that her husband has the heart and the decency, and the experience to be president."

Michelle ObamaPlay

Obama plans on focusing on her family, according to her spokesperson. She will share the story of their lives and their values. It is an important message for the Obama campaign, as they use the Democratic convention to answer any lingering questions as to who Barack Obama really is.

And it is a familiar message, as well. It has practically become a convention standard to use the would-be first lady as a way to humanize her husband.

"For Bill and me, family has been the center of our lives. But we also know that our family, like your family, is part of a larger community that can help or hurt our best efforts to raise our child," Hillary Clinton told the crowd gathered in Chicago in 1996.

MIchelle ObamaPlay

In 2004, Laura Bush shared a similar sentiment. "George and I grew up in West Texas, where the sky seems endless, and so do the possibilities. He brings that optimism, that sense of purpose."

And more than a decade earlier, Laura Bush's mother-in-law used the same idea in her speech, telling the crowd, "The hardest thing we ever faced together was the loss of a child."

"Despite eight years as vice president, people really didn't have a good sense of who George Bush was, as he liked to say, 'what his heartbeat was,' and Barbara Bush was the best possible person to define him and describe him to the American public," Tate said about Barbara Bush's speech, adding, "What she did was extraordinary for her, because she never liked to draw attention to herself."

Michelle ObamaPlay

And so, as history shows, they have been -- for the most part -- safe speeches that avoid controversy or detailed political discussions. Occasionally, though, a wife has stepped out of this role and found that adding an edge to her speech can backfire.

In 1992, Marilyn Quayle spoke of the pride she had in her family, but also took a harsh approach when talking about the other parties' views.

"I sometimes think that the liberals are always so angry, because they believed the grandiose promises of the liberation movements. They're disappointed because most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women. Most of us love being mothers and wives, which gives our lives a richness that few men or women get from professional accomplishment alone," Quayle said. Many considered the reference to be a thinly veiled jab at Hillary Clinton.

Cindy McCainPlay

That same year, Hillary Clinton chose not to speak at all. The decision stemmed from worries that her speech could play into concerns that she was trying to be the co-president with her husband.

The whole idea of a spouse speaking at a convention is a rather recent invention. Long before the days where wives walked through the aisle, like Elizabeth Dole in 1996, and the famous Al and Tipper Gore mega-kiss -- women weren't even welcome at the convention.

In fact, Nellie Taft, in 1912, was the first candidate's wife to attend a political convention. However, she didn't even attend her own party's convention. Instead, she attended the Democratic convention, sitting in the front row in an attempt to intimidate her husband's opponents.

In 1940, the strong-willed Eleanor Roosevelt was also chosen to take a more active role in the Democratic convention. When President Franklin Roosevelt said he needed her help to be re-elected for a third term, she immediately jumped on a plane.

"This is no ordinary time. You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time," Eleanor Roosevelt said in her speech to the convention that year.

While extraordinary moments like those did occur, it wasn't until the 1980s that potential first ladies would become a regular fixture at the conventions.

And since then, their speeches have served as a chance for would-be first ladies to define themselves. And once again, the opportunity is there this year for Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain -- but it comes with a risk.

"Both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain essentially need to be themselves. Because when you're up on that podium, cameras of the world pointed at you, anything you say or do that's a little fraudulent, people pick up on. So, authenticity is important," political analyst Carl Anthony said.

And so, as both spouses gear up for their moment in the spotlight, you can be sure they are aware that millions of voters will be watching. And judging.