Candidates’ spouses discuss life on the trail

LONG BEACH, Calif. – When their husbands take the stage together to debate, they tend to argue about the war in Iraq or who’s the toughest on international terrorism. A light moment might consist of a segue into health care policy or the battle over illegal immigration.

But Tuesday in Long Beach, the wives of five of the top candidates for president found much more to unite than to separate them during an hourlong forum that their host, California first lady Maria Shriver, sponsored as part of her fourth annual Conference on Women.

Yes, they seemed to agree, they would like to see more of their husbands; reduce the influence of money in political campaigns; and meet voters one on one, rather than via television or giant rallies.

But the five women from both political parties drew the loudest response when they talked about the travails they share with the thousands of women packed into the Long Beach Arena.

“We are struggling with this notion of balance,” said Michelle Obama, 43, wife of Sen. Barack Obama. “I think that is what we are all facing as women, because we are overworked, and we are overscheduled, and we are juggling, and we are not getting enough support that we need.

“There is a part of me that feels it’s very therapeutic to be out on the road with other women and to say, ‘Hey you are not crazy, this is hard,’ “Obama added to loud applause.

The candidates’ spouses downplayed any role as strategists or policymakers, saying they hoped they helped humanize their husbands and spread their messages. They agreed that they spend considerable time keeping their families running.

Jeri Thompson, wife of actor and Republican candidate Fred Thompson, said she was concentrating on her 4-year-old daughter and her son, who turns 1 this week. The one demand she made on the campaign trail? A changing table on the tour bus.

Obama said she thought the campaign had been a great learning experience for her daughters, aged 6 and 9, but that she tries to be home each night to read to them. The girls will win one other concession, she said: “They were like, ‘You’re running for president, we are getting a dog.’ “

Elizabeth Edwards, 58, a veteran of one campaign with her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, four years ago, said that she and fellow campaign veteran Cindy McCain, 53, wife of Sen. John McCain, were familiar with such paybacks. “We can tell you,” she said, “you are going to end up with more animals.”

The audience offered a particularly warm response to Edwards, diagnosed seven months ago with inoperable cancer.

Scanning the tall, thin women arrayed beside her, Edwards said she was reminded of the “Sesame Street” song lyric, “One of these things is not like the others.” “Everyone is so beautiful,” Edwards said. “Which one doesn’t belong?”

The former senator’s wife also reached out to offer a reassuring pat to Thompson, 40, who seemed genuinely reticent about her entry into the presidential race. The session represented something of a coming out for Thompson, whose husband joined a months-old campaign only six weeks ago.

“I have read everything from you are the campaign mastermind, to you are the campaign strategist, you are the trophy wife, you are everything,” said Shriver, as the women sat in a semi-circle of blue armchairs. “Which is the right depiction of you?”

Thompson did not respond directly to any of those descriptions, saying she is focused on her children. “I’m not even qualified to do a lot of the other stuff,” she said.

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