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In a Glamour magazine interview, Michelle Obama said her husband is so "snore-y and stinky" that her daughters won't cuddle with him in bed. She tells voters how he leaves his dirty socks around and invites them to tattle if they see him violating their deal in which she would allow him to run if he would stop smoking. Barack Obama has written with startling candor about the strains that his political career has put on their marriage, particularly when both were in their formative years. "Leaning down to kiss Michelle goodbye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek," he wrote. "By the time Sasha was born just as beautiful, and almost as calm as her sister my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained."
But you could argue that her acknowledgment of his flaws makes her more effective when she turns that anger on his critics. "Don't be fooled by people who claim that it is not his time," she exhorts. "We've heard this spewed from the lips of rivals ... every phase of our journey: He is not experienced enough. He should wait his turn. He is too young. He is not black enough. He is not white enough."
Michelle Obama says she is betting that voters will not only accept that frankness but embrace it. "You win with being who you are and with being clear and comfortable with that," she says. "I'm finding that people completely understand me. For the most part, I think the women and the men and the families and the folks that we are meeting on the campaign trail understand the realities of families of today."
Oddly enough, it is the republican spouses who are stretching the limits of traditional values in ways they never have before. Ann Romney's story line the high school sweetheart and sunny stay-at-home mom who produced a close-knit, picture-perfect family actually sets her apart among the leading contenders' wives. Which doesn't hurt when you are trying to persuade voters, particularly evangelical conservatives, to consider putting a Mormon in the White House. "I think that people have seen Mitt and me. They certainly know we have a very strong marriage and very strong family," she says. "I think that is clearly helpful to him in breaking down barriers that people have had in the past." But, she adds, "I don't know if they've seen enough."
For the others, the question may be whether voters have seen too much. The public displays of affection that front runner Rudolph Giuliani and wife Judith put on for Barbara Walters holding hands and calling each other "baby" and "sweetheart" only served to remind viewers that this first blush of love is also the third marriage for each, and that wife No. 3 is one of the reasons his children with wife No. 2 won't campaign for him. "I have just recently begun I think they call it in the political world being 'rolled out,'" Judith, 52, told Walters, but the process has been anything but smooth. A scathing profile of Judith Stish Ross Nathan Giuliani in Vanity Fair pored over her two failed marriages (one of which she acknowledged only recently), the requirement that a separate seat on her plane be provided for the Louis Vuitton handbag that is known around Giuliani headquarters as Baby Louis, and the inconvenient timeline of their courtship, which started while he was still living with second wife Donna Hanover.
Through all this, Judith Giuliani is trying hard to keep her game face on. "It's a steep learning curve. It's all been new to me," she says. "What's really important is, it's my husband who's running for office. He is the one. I do think that is important for us to focus on. We aren't electing a spouse." And while Rudy Giuliani told Walters he would be "very, very comfortable" with having his wife, a nurse, attend Cabinet meetings "I couldn't have a better adviser" Judith downplays her influence and her interest in his campaign and in any future Giuliani Administration. "My role is really to support my husband in the ways I have always supported him. I love to take charge of his personal health needs, make sure he's exercising, getting the right food, which is a real challenge on the campaign trail," she says. "I do attend some meetings, but more often than not, it's for my own edification."
For Fred Thompson's wife Jeri, 40, who is a quarter-century younger than he is, it's hard to figure out which female stereotype is more toxic: the siren whose tight, low-cut outfits had cable-television commentator and former gop Congressman Joe Scarborough speculating that she "works the pole" a phrase usually associated with strippers or the conniving Lady Macbeth who has been blamed for sending his campaign into disarray even before it was launched. She was a major force in persuading him to run but also a major one behind a series of shake-ups that had the campaign on its second manager and its fourth spokesman before Thompson even announced his candidacy.
Her defenders note that Jeri Thompson has worked for years as a political operative. "She gets Republican politics. She gets conservative politics. But most of all, she understands where this man is and how best to help him," says Mark Corallo, a well-respected strategist who helped launch the campaign. But then, on the eve of Thompson's much delayed announcement, Corallo himself resigned.
Their family portrait a man who qualifies for Social Security with a 40-year-old blond, a toddler and a baby is a far cry from that of Ike and Mamie. "He sadly now looks like their grandfather," says Marton. "It's not what women want the presidential family to look like. No doubt unintentionally, but to a lot of women it's almost a rebuke. It's too unsubtle."
The New Normal
In this campaign, which has produced so much buzz about political marriages, the challenge for the Clintons has been a different one: making the most remarkable situation of all look normal.
The first time his wife ran for office, Bill Clinton was in the White House, which kept him safely off her stage and minimized the amount of public distraction he caused. But behind the scenes, he was her political consultant in chief, reworking her speeches, stepping in when her staff was putting too much on her schedule, rehearsing her for debates and demanding she step up her ad buys.
That was two successful Senate campaigns ago. Now the man who jokes that he wants to be known as "First Laddie" downplays his role as she reaches for the biggest prize of all: his old job. He has joined his wife in a couple of campaign swings and is her star fund raiser. But he has yet to show up among the spouses in the audience at any of the Democratic debates. As for his role in any future Clinton Administration, both she and he have talked about the possibility that she might make him an unofficial emissary. "I think she will ask me and former President Bush and other people to go help the country. We have got to restore our standing in the world," Bill Clinton told CNN's Larry King recently. "I wouldn't be surprised if she [asked] every former President to do something."
But in the meantime, there's an election to win. And while Hillary Clinton has the best political strategist of her generation at her disposal, Bill is by all accounts keeping his obtrusions to a minimum. Campaign officials say that while the couple talks several times a day, he rarely gets involved with the workings of her campaign. "He's doing what he's asked, and he's doing what he can," says an aide, "but he's certainly not meddling." In part, that's because his own work—his foundation and a tour to promote his new book keeps him plenty busy. And it also reflects the fact that she has an enormous political machine around her that seems to be doing pretty well on its own.
"If she's writing an important article or giving an important speech, she'll ask me to read it," the former President told Oprah Winfrey. "And once in a while she'll ask me for some advice on something strategic. But she knows so much more about a lot of this stuff than I do because I'm far removed from it." Occasionally, he says, he gets a call from her while he's on the golf course, and she reminds him that she's 15 years older than he was when he did it, "and I say, ‘Well, nobody made you run.'"
Bill Clinton, 61, is also making a conscious effort to stay out of the fray, though when Elizabeth Edwards attacked Hillary as not vocal enough on women's issues, he rode to his wife's defense. "If you look at the record on women's issues, I defy you to find anybody who has run for office in recent history who's got a longer history of working for women, for families and children, than Hillary does," Clinton said in an interview with ABC's Good Morning America. As for Edwards' contention that Hillary had behaved "as a man," Clinton retorted, "I don't think it's inconsistent with being a woman that you can also be knowledgeable on military and security affairs and be strong when the occasion demands it."
But he has steered clear of criticizing Hillary's opponents. "This is a good time for us Democrats," he says. "We don't have to be against anybody. We can be for the person we think would be the best President." Of course, that's easy to say when your candidate is safely ahead in the polls. If their situation and that of the Edwardses were reversed, "would he be her biggest attack dog like Elizabeth Edwards is? Maybe," concedes a strategist. "But he gets to be the big guy at least for now." Then again, he's in a supporting role that doesn't come with a script. No one knows that better than a Clinton.
With reporting by Nancy Gibbs/New York and Jay Newton-Small/Washington
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