Potential First Spouses Prove Influential

The presidential candidates' spouses are playing a bigger role in this election than in the past. Voters are looking to them to get a better sense of the politicians they are married to.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now that so many states have moved their presidential contests up to January and February, there's even more pressure on the candidates to be everywhere at once. Well, of course they can't be everywhere at once. And so they are sending their wives and husband.

DAY TO DAY's Alex Cohen reports.

ALEX COHEN: Go to almost any of the candidate's Web sites and it's clear: in this race the wives - and one husband - matter.

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President BILL CLINTON: There are a lot of things about Hillary you may not know that occurred in her life before she ever became a United States senator.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: The first time I met Barack was at our law firm. I was a first year associate. He was funny.

Ms. ELIZABETH KUCINICH: Hi. I'm Elizabeth Kucinich. Welcome to Tucson, Arizona and to the grand southwest tour of the Kucinich campaign.

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COHEN: In the current frenzy leading up to the primaries, many of the spouses are now playing an unprecedented role. That's mostly because they can be someplace their other half isn't. Hillary Clinton was in New Hampshire yesterday while her husband Bill was stumping in Iowa. Tonight John Edwards will be in the Iowa town of Jefferson, but his wife, Elizabeth, will be fundraising for him in Washington, D.C.

Cal State Sacramento Professor Barbara O'Connor says today's candidates often have no choice but to lean heavily on their mates.

Dr. BARBARA O'CONNOR (California State University): If they are capable of going out on the stump on their own, they do sort of extend the legs of a campaign by able to be in a different state from their husband.

COHEN: And the public, it seems, is happy to see these spouses, since they've become almost celebrities in their own right.

Ms. OBAMA: One of the reasons why people are so fascinated, I think, and particularly women, is because I think we're all struggling with this notion of balance.

COHEN: Barack Obama's wife Michelle recently appeared with four of the other candidates' wives at a women's conference here in Southern California. She argued that the hectic life they're leading isn't too different from the lives of most American women.

Ms. OBAMA: We're juggling and we're challenged and we're overworked and we're overscheduled. There's a part of me that feels that it's very therapeutic to be out on the road, to talk to women and say, hey, you're not crazy. This is hard.

COHEN: Voters are also looking to these would-be first ladies to get a better sense of the person who could become president. They've said as much to Cindy McCain, wife of Senator John McCain.

Ms. CINDY McCAIN: People say, you know, I like the way both of you look. You know, I like the way you act together, you know, I like...

Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS: That's because it tells him something about him. Yes.

Ms. McCAIN: Yes.

COHEN: That's John Edwards' wife Elizabeth charming in.

Ms. EDWARDS: The relationship that he has with his family, the extent to which he is the good father, you know, who coaches soccer, plays with them, those kinds of things, and the relationship he has with his spouse tells them something about him.

Dr. O'CONNOR: Part of what we want from a leader is consonance in their own personal life.

COHEN: Communications professor Barbara O'Connor.

Dr. O'CONNOR: If you're happy in your family and if you feel comfortable in that role, then it's almost easier to be comfortable in your work-related role. So if there's disharmony in a family situation and it's discernable, I think voters question whether or not they really want that person to be a leader.

COHEN: Which is to say a marriage can also hurt a campaign. And O'Connor adds that may be the case with Rudy Giuliani. Some Americans aren't too impressed that his relationship with the current Mrs. Giuliani, Judy, began while he was still married to another woman.

Rudy Giuliani has said if elected, he'd have Judy sit in on cabinet meetings. But voters can be wary of wives who carry too much weight, says the University of Missouri journalism professor Betty Winfield.

For instance, she says, some Americans were worried about voting for Bill Clinton in the early '90s, knowing that Hillary had no intention of being a quiet, stay-at-home wife.

Professor BETTY WINFIELD (University of Missouri): Their concern was - and this is something that's been a concern from the very beginning of our country, about these women having power, like who elected her anyway.

COHEN: But Winfield says the influential effect of the spouse might actually help the candidate named Clinton get votes in this election. And if it helps enough, voters will face an entirely new question: what to call a White House spouse who's not a first lady. Bill Clinton has suggested the title First Laddie.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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