Would-Be First Ladies Bolster Husbands-In-Chief

Spouses can play an important role for a presidential aspirant. Often, they humanize the candidate. Sometimes, they serve the campaign as powerful surrogates. Other times, they turn off voters.

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In the Obama White House, as with almost any White House, the important players include the first lady, and right now a number of people are affectively trying out for that position. They are unofficial running mates you could say, the presidential candidates' wives, who can sometimes help a candidate in ways that no one else can. NPR's Tovia Smith reports the would-be first ladies are increasingly in the campaign spotlight.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: They are high school sweethearts and soul mates turned campaign surrogates and sales women.

ANITA PERRY: Nobody will fight harder and work harder for your country.

KAREN SANTORUM: What I love about Rick is he's so courageous.

ANN ROMNEY: That's been what our marriage has been like. He will have the kind of character to do the right thing.

SMITH: Anita Perry, Karen Santorum, and Ann Romney, may not be household names yet, but they're trying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Now you're going to meet his most prized secret weapon, Mrs. Huntsman, good to see you Mary Kay.

SMITH: Especially in primaries, when candidates have relatively few differences on issues, spouses can help define a candidate and fix their faults.

ROMNEY: I say there's another lens you can see the man through, and that's from his family.

SMITH: Ann Romney has been humanizing her husband, Mitt, who's seen as stiff or inauthentic. She told an interviewer that at home, Romney's hair is usually messed up. She talks about his silly moments and his tender ones, like after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

ROMNEY: What he did was say, look, were going to be OK. I don't care that you can't make dinner every night, I can eat peanut butter sandwiches and cold cereal for rest of my life. As long as we're together, we can handle anything.

SMITH: It not only makes her husband look good, but it also draws the contrast with others, like Newt Gingrich, who divorced his first two wives. Gingrich's current wife, Callista, is almost always seen with Gingrich, though rarely heard.

CALLISTA GINGRICH: Let's give a warm welcome to my husband and best friend, Newt Gingrich.

SMITH: Devoted wife - yes, but warm and fuzzy Mrs. Gingrich is not. With her stiffly coiffed platinum hair and practiced smile, American University professor Jennifer Lawless says the former mistress-turned-wife is a doubled-edged sword.

JENNIFER LAWLESS: It could backfire, and it might prime voters to think about previous wives and previous marital problems he's had.

SMITH: Mrs. Gingrich has also caused tension within the campaign - staffers complaining she had too much influence and control. Decades after Hillary Clinton promised voters a two-fer, voters still prefer more traditional political spouses.

SANTORUM: I come before you today to introduce the man I love and admire.

SMITH: Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, granted interviews early on to a Christian station, reinforcing her husband's religious convictions. Then she was mostly quiet, until last week when she lashed out at a radio host who mocked how her family handled the death of their prematurely born baby.

SANTORUM: And I think that it was very inappropriate of him to do that. I'm sad that he did that. I feel for him that he did that. I pray he will never lose a child.

SMITH: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry's wife Anita has also lashed out at the media. And she's known to jab at rivals, like when she said Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan made her want to call 9-1-1, or when she used Perry's now infamous mid-debate brain freeze to lob a shot at the president.

PERRY: Some people may be more polished. You know what? I think we have a debater in chief right now. I'm not looking for debater in chief; I'm looking for a leader.

SMITH: Having wives lob attacks can be useful, as it's harder to fire back at them. Jon Huntsman's wife, Mary Kay, is also playing that role in solo campaign events and on TV jabbing at other contenders as she praises her husband.

MARY KAY HUNTSMAN: He is courageous. He's a bold leader, and you know what? He will not sell his soul for a vote.

SMITH: Ron Paul's wife Carol has shunned the spotlight. And so far, it hasn't seemed to hurt, but voters ultimately do want to know who might be engaging in pillow talk with the president of the United States.

MARY DWYER: Of course. I think that I want to see a little bit of what makes them tick.

SMITH: In New Hampshire this week, voters like Mary Dwyer say it's a vibe she's looking for. The wives' words of praise don't mean much, as Carol Burbee and Brenda Hanlin put it.

CAROL BURBEE: What else are they going to say, you know?

BRENDA HANLIN: I wouldn't listen to that...

BURBEE: They're not going to say, you know, he's cheating on me, but vote for him.

SMITH: Indeed, with voters who know better, it's easy to overdo it in the happy marriage department. Years ago the Romneys were roundly ridiculed after Ann Romney told a reporter they had just one single argument in their whole lives, and it was back when she was 17.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

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