Ready or not, they also run

One sang backup for James Brown, another is a shy doctor who makes house calls. One is a lawyer, another a homemaker. One is a military wife, one a daughter of Holocaust survivors and another an opinionated Mozambiquean multimillionaire heiress.

All are running for the White House. In a manner of speaking.

If you stood all these women - Kathy, Judy, Elizabeth, Jane, Gertrude, Hadassah, and Teresa - up on stage together and asked the average American voter who they were, you would be hard pressed to get a correct answer.

Though their faces are not instantly recognizable, these would-be first ladies are nonetheless key players in the political game of 2004 and, as such, fair game for consultants.

True, such advisers agree, a presidential election was never actually won or lost because of a spouse. But in a world where one popularity point can make or break a candidacy, the "spouse factor" is no minor matter.

So just to play it safe, most consultants dish out a raft of advice that might be summed up as follows: Share warm anecdotes but stay away from sticky policy points. Look pulled together, act loving, and when it comes to speeches, keep it short and sweet.

Such advice, however, tends to lead to a crop of nearly indistinguishable political spouses - except for the occasional maverick who breaks the mold.

Consultants today worry too much about the spouse being controversial, says Melanne Verveer, formerly Hillary Clinton's longtime chief of staff.

"The advisers don't want the spouse to be a burden, so they try to make her play a supportive and helpful and quiet role," she says. "So they all come out sounding the same and melding into the woodwork. It's too calibrated."

Looking at the lineup of seven democratic spouses this election year (two of the nine presidential candidates - former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio - are not married), the field can indeed often seem a bit fuzzy, with faces and messages blending together.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Jane Gephardt, wife of Rep. Richard Gephardt, Hadassah Lieberman, the wife of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Gen. Wesley Clark's wife, "Gerti" Clark, are all equally considered assets to their husbands - trooping along on the campaign trail, raising money, and, whether they truly support the run or not (Mrs. Clark is said to be reluctant), effecting a bright, positive image.

The Rev. Al Sharpton's wife, Kathy Jordan, has had little to do with her husband's campaign, but has not detracted from it.

The two candidates wives that do stick out more are a study in contrasts. Mozambique-born Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has a long record of advocating for and donating to environmental, human rights, and women's causes.

She is head of the $1.2 billion Heinz Foundation endowment, a job she inherited after the passing of her first husband, Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania (she, too, was a Republican until recently). She is wealthy, headstrong, and by all accounts an ambitious and independent woman.

As such, she is already raising political eyebrows. Ms. Heinz publicly called the nine-way presidential debates "silly" and a waste of time (even as her husband continues to participate).

She has attacked her husband's political rivals (not usually a role of the spouse) and, on one inexplicable occasion, made fun of his Vietnam nightmares in an interview with The Washington Post. Not surprisingly, the Kerry campaign recently brought in a media handler to try to work with her image.

"Obviously it will be tough to mold Kerry's wife," says Sandra Sobieraj, Washington bureau chief of People Magazine. "That campaign manager must be losing a lot of hair every time she opens her mouth. Campaign consultants are freaks for control - and this does not mix well with wives who have a mind of their own."

The wives of US presidential hopefuls have been fixtures on the campaign trail since Martha pitched up beside George at a small support gathering at Mt. Vernon in late 1787.

But as the role of women in society has changed, so too has the role of the candidate's wife. Today, political spouses typically take on more central roles, serving as advisers and activists behind the scenes, as well as fundraisers and surrogates in the public arena.

More and more spouses - including some in the current group - keep their own names and careers, and take up their own pet causes. All of which has the political consultants feeling a little jittery.

"As a political consultant, you worry. You have to make sure the wife stays on message and knows what to say or not to say. You can't have her speaking out against the war in Iraq, for example, when her husband is for it," says Dennis Johnson, associate dean of George Washington University's graduate school of political management.

"And of course they are told what to wear," he says. "You don't want the focus to be 'Boy, his wife has crazy outfits.' "

"Any smart consultant would try to capitalize on the spouse's ability - in telling stories and anecdotes - to convey an image of the candidate as a human being, not a policy wonk," says Trooper Sanders, a policy adviser to presidential candidate Al Gore's wife, Tipper, in 2000.

The pitfall, he warns, is when consultants try to manufacture "the right" candidate spouse, instead of trying to build on her own strengths.

But the building process is a unique one for each potential first lady. "There is no job description for this position," says Verveer, Mrs. Clinton's former chief of staff. "Each woman brings her own experiences, professional expertise, and understanding of the role with her."

Clinton, one of the most active and outspoken (as well as most polarizing) political spouses in recent history, certainly had views about her participation in the political process, says Ms. Verveer. "But she always said no one should be expected to do the same afterwards."

Tipper Gore proved problematic for advisers in a different fashion. During the 2000 elections, consultants tried to get her to "tone down" - to no avail. Mrs. Gore's natural instinct was to "talk about how sexy Al was, and they tried to modify that message," says Ms. Sobieraj. "But in the end they let her loose. She was practically making out with the candidate at the convention."

This time around, Judy Steinberg, wife of former Vermont governor and Democratic forerunner Howard Dean, is a very different sort of spouse. A doctor, she remains focused on her practice - and neither campaigns nor travels with her husband. The couple, by their own admission, seldom even talk politics, and she does not watch the televised debates because they don't have cable at home.

In fact, if Dean reaches the White House, his wife has said she intends to keep her practice.

"It's never been done," Dean acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press. "But I think she would be a real role model for America - a woman who doesn't depend on her husband's career, and that's the majority of women these days."

Dean, on this argument, gets some backup from an unlikely quarter.

"And why should Mrs. Dean's plans be a problem?" snaps Anna Perez, former press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush. "Each of these individual spouses, and God willing we will be talking about men soon too, should have the right and ability to decide the role they want to play."

What Mrs. Dean decides, stresses Ms. Perez, "is up to her. No Monday-morning-football quarterbacks should have a say."

Read it and weep, political consultants.

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