Candidates' Spouses Take on New Roles From Judith Nathan to Bill Clinton, the spouses of the contenders for the presidential nomination in both parties bear little resemblance to the prototypical first lady. Michele Norris talks with Ruth Marcus, columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.
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Candidates' Spouses Take on New Roles

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Candidates' Spouses Take on New Roles

Candidates' Spouses Take on New Roles

Candidates' Spouses Take on New Roles

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From Judith Nathan to Bill Clinton, the spouses of the contenders for the presidential nomination in both parties bear little resemblance to the prototypical first lady. Michele Norris talks with Ruth Marcus, columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Political analysts are divided on the degree to which a candidate's spouse can enhance his or her electability. But in an extremely competitive media-driven campaign, a spouse can help attract or repel voters, especially among those in the undecided camp.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial board member for the Washington Post. She's been giving this some thought, and she joins us now. Ruth, what is your take on this? What is the role of a candidate's spouse, a campaign spouse?

Ms. RUTH MARCUS (Columnist, Washington Post): Well, in a sense, they humanize the candidate. They sort of vouch for the candidate for being a family - I think we have to say - person now. And first spouses these days are going to be involved in policy, and so, you want to know, as a voter, the way they think also.

NORRIS: But in terms of lightly enhancing a candidate's image, if the candidate relies too much on their spouse, whether that spouse is a man or a woman, is that a potential trap?

Ms. MARCUS: Relying too much on a spouse is a potential trap. But I think when you're running for president as opposed to pretty much any other political office, voters want to know who, what spouses they're buying also. They really do think of it as a package that they're getting. And if you think back to four years ago, people found it a little bit odd when it looked like Howard Dean might well be the Democratic presidential nominee, and they had never seen his wife, Dr. Dean, who had been very clear that if her husband were to be elected president, she wanted to keep on practicing medicine.

NORRIS: Well, there are a number of working women among the candidates' spouses this year, particularly among the Democratic field. I guess, the number of what you could - this year, two-four couples, a woman who work outside the home -will that work to the candidates' advantage in terms of trying to build support among women, and the way that it did for Bill Clinton back in 1992?

Ms. MARCUS: I think it will. And I think this year is really a kind of generational watershed in the political spouse. If you read Barack Obama's book, if you read about his wife, they're kind of juggling the same sorts of work and family issues that ordinary Americans are juggling every single day. And she talks about how when he comes home, she expects him to take out the garbage and make the bed.

NORRIS: You're talking about Michelle Obama?

Ms. MARCUS: Michelle Obama, sorry.

NORRIS: And Elizabeth Edwards, also a trained attorney, has written about the same, sort of, expectations for her husband.

Ms. MARCUS: Sure. And she is similarly educated. She was a lawyer now. She's very involved in her husband's presidential campaign. I think that all of these spouses in their own ways are potential, real assets to the candidates. They make them look real. On the other hand, you could have some situations of potential problem spouses, and - or problem situations, not the spouse per se. But, if you look, say, the Republican field among the top three, there's only one who's been married one time.

And that is Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. And he very much uses and presents his wife, Ann, as a big asset in his campaign. Mother of his five children, grandmother of his 10 children, and it's a not terribly subtle way of distinguishing himself from the other two big contenders in the field who have a total of five marriages between them.

NORRIS: Curious about why multiple marriages would be an issue - half of all marriages in America end in divorce. So why is that still such a presidential taboo?

Ms. MARCUS: I think we have gotten used to that since Ronald Reagan, and moving forward from there to divorce, per se, not being an impediment. I do think that more than one divorce, or in Mayor Giuliani's case, it was an annulment and then a divorce - it is something that could make some voters uncomfortable. And, also, I think, quite honestly, the way you split from your spouse plays into that human understanding as well.

NORRIS: Ruth, good to talk to you.

Ms. MARCUS: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Ruth Marcus. She's a columnist and a member of the Washington Post editorial board.

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