Elizabeth Edwards prides herself on her ability to explain the fine print of her husband's energy plan and the details of how John Edwards would respond to the next Katrina-size natural disaster. She can rattle off the number of people who lack health insurance in New Hampshire (about 127,000), how many schools there have failed to meet the Federal Government's standards for "adequate yearly progress" (191) and where the state ranks in teacher pay (24th). "I think it's important to learn policy, so that people don't have to dumb down their questions because I'm the spouse," she says. Nor, for that matter, does she feel a spouse should have to sand down her edges. When a woman at a house party in Bow, N.H., asked her one recent morning how her husband's campaign would respond to "the inevitable horrible mudslinging" that is part of presidential politics, you might have thought she was the one in the family who had grown up in a brawling mill town. "It's a question of being prepared and not having any hesitation," she said. "You go straight to the nose because then they walk away bleeding. And that's the point."
It's hard to imagine Laura Bush saying something like that. There is no handbook for the spouse of a presidential candidate, but the expectations have always been pretty clear. She (yes, that was the presumption) should first do no harm. Her safest bet: stand silently at his side, beaming with admiration and awe, the well-coiffed testament to a home life that was tranquil, drama-free and utterly traditional. When the spouse became the story, it was seldom good news for the principal.
Take what happened in 1992, when a certain Governor from Arkansas started throwing around quips like "Buy one, get one free" and musing about the possibility of giving his outspoken lawyer wife a Cabinet post. In no time, people were working out their own conflicted feelings about feminism and family by arguing over Hillary Clinton the influences she would bring to the White House, the state of her marriage, even her headbands. No less a political scientist than Richard Nixon, whose own spouse had been a paragon of cloth-coat humility, warned, "If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp."
Fast-forward four presidential cycles, and Hillary is leading the field for the Democratic presidential nomination, while Bill is the one learning to fit himself into the supporting role. With a spouse who can be counted on to outshine the candidate, her campaign has had to handle the former president as carefully as a tactical nuclear weapon. "A lot of people might have expected him to be out immediately, and instead, he's sort of behind the scenes and on the phone and doing fund raising," says Elizabeth Edwards, 58. "It is clearly more complicated for them ... I'm just glad that's their problem, not mine."
But Bill is far from the only spouse rewriting the rules of the road in presidential politics. Of the 2008 candidates and particularly among those in the top tier more than a few are married to outspoken, opinionated, professional women who are neither accustomed to nor inclined toward melting into the background. They are comfortable with, even eager about making news in their own right. Since the 2008 campaign promises to be more competitive, more expensive and more prolonged than any we've seen, the spouses are playing roles more typically associated with the running mate than the mate of the person who's running. In fact, the reality of today's politics seems to have turned Nixon's premise on its head. A strong, smart, fully engaged spouse is practically a prerequisite if you want to win. Sit down and talk to some of them, and you will realize that while they all are charting the terrain ahead in their own ways, they do so with the conviction that their partner can't get there without them. As Cindy McCain, 53, put it, "He and I are the only two in it in the end."
One reason campaigns are relying more heavily on spouses as surrogates is simply practical: two people can cover far more territory than one. "It's obviously different. Not only am I going out and speaking, but I'm also doing fund raising on my own," says Ann Romney, 58, whose five sons too are being deployed across the map. "There are so many states in play now that you can't possibly cover them all with the asset of just one candidate." As the competition gets hotter, we'll see whether the traditional attack-dog role played by vice-presidential nominees falls to the spouses as well and whether they are given leeway to say things that their husbands wouldn't dare. There was no mistaking what Elizabeth Edwards meant when she said Hillary Clinton is "divisive and unelectable." She has blasted Barack Obama for being "holier than thou" on the Iraq war, contended Hillary Clinton has had to "behave as a man" and "is just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see," and complained that her husband is not getting as much media attention as either of them because "we can't make John black; we can't make him a woman."
Edwards allows that she occasionally thinks, "Golly, I wish I hadn't said it that way." And she insists that she is merely being herself, not part of a campaign strategy. "There is no, and I mean zero, campaign discussion, calculation, anything with respect to this. The second thing is, I don't usually volunteer this," Edwards says of these comments about her husband's front-running rivals. "When I am specifically asked, I simply answer the question, and it's not a matter of attacking in particular."
But that doesn't mean all this is random. "My job is to move voters," Edwards says. "If you're not moving votes or moving voters to see the candidate himself or herself, then you're not using your time very wisely." And that highlights another poignant and uncomfortable reality of the unique situation in which Edwards now finds herself. What she calls "my precious time" is even more so since it was revealed in March that her breast cancer, first diagnosed in the final days of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, had recurred as Stage IV and is incurable. Statistics suggest only 20% of patients in her situation live for five years. Is Edwards getting a sympathy pass? Rival campaigns think so, though they won't say so publicly. As one strategist puts it, "She's bulletproof."
Reporters are primed to hear an attack even when none is intended. When Michelle Obama, 43, mused last month in Iowa that "if you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House" an innocent enough observation, the full context of her remarks shows, about the challenges of juggling her children's schedule with her husband's it was immediately interpreted as a dig at the Clintons. "The claws come out," screamed a caption beneath her picture and Hillary Clinton's on Fox News. "That's a totally different context," Obama now says. "So that's one of those things where I take it, I learn a lesson, I say, 'O.K., let me be clearer' ... All I'm trying to do is talk to the American people about who we are, our shortcomings, our challenges. What I don't want to feel like is that we can't have any conversations about this values or morals or all of that because somebody's feelings might get hurt. This is tough stuff."
Next Illness On the Trail