By Aaron Blake - 03/06/07 08:21 PM EST
As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) begins her quest to become the first woman to win the presidency, her male opponents have been highlighting the women in their lives.
Several candidates have granted major early interviews with their wives by their sides and are using their spouses to raise money and build their profile 20 months before the 2008 election.
An ABC News series profiling presidential candidates’ spouses is appropriately titled “Running Mates,” as the package deal that historically has been president-and-vice president increasingly has become president-and-wife. With Laura Bush’s role in the 2004 and 2006 elections and now the candidacy of Clinton and her would-be first gentleman, former President Bill Clinton, the visibility of wedded teams has become as great as ever.
While spouses’ presence early on the campaign trail is nothing new — Rosaline Carter was campaigning by mid-1975 and Nancy Reagan was out early as well — the 2008 field has broken new ground, first-ladies scholar Carl Sferrazza Anthony said.
“All of them being out there came earlier than usual,” Anthony, who is currently writing a biography of Ida McKinley, said. “It’s more than just the whole role of image; part of it’s a practical thing as well. When they go to a state, a husband and wife can do twice as many events.”
The Clintons’ weekend appearance in Selma, Ala., will be one of only a few where they are together, but Bill Clinton’s presence is likely to bolster his wife’s candidacy, at least in Democratic circles.
The other two Democratic frontrunners and one of the top Republicans, meanwhile, have brought out their spouses early and often.
When former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) sat down for some of their first high-profile televised interviews of the campaign, their wives were there. They have help raised money, made public appearances and been held out to voters as strong women overcoming disease and adversity.
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted shortly before the 2004 presidential election, 54 percent of voters cite candidates’ spouses as an important factor in making their decisions.
Often, experts say, wives are character witnesses who provide a more down-to-earth portrait of their powerful husbands.
Laura Bush has largely mastered that role, earning approval ratings in the 70s leading up to her husband’s 2004 reelection win and boosting Republicans with her appearances in the 2006 midterms, even while her husband was often seen as a liability.
In the 2008 campaign, Edwards, Obama and Romney appear anxious to get out front in the spouse primary. Other candidates have used their wives in less public roles, such as e-mailing supporters.
Despite her battle with multiple sclerosis, Ann Romney has been nearly everywhere with her husband and begins his first campaign ads with a voiceover. Michelle Obama appeared alongside her husband on “60 Minutes” and on the cover of Ebony magazine. And Edwards’s wife has been a fixture in his campaign from the start, echoing her presence in the 2004 election.
For now, the Democrats are competing with the Bill-and-Hillary package. In Romney’s case, highlighting his wife can help him throw light on the multiple marriages of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the marriages and family life of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).
McCain has been married twice, Giuliani three times. Giuliani’s second divorce was a messy public affair.
Ann Romney remarked last month that her husband is the only major candidate to have been married only once — an apparent reference to concerns about the history of polygamy in their Mormon faith that was also seen as a shot at Giuliani and McCain.
Giuliani, who is currently featured with his wife in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, said on Radio Iowa in mid-February that he didn’t interpret her comment as an indication that opponents are declaring the marriage issue to be political fair game early in the campaign.
After a story about his strained relationship with his son in The New York Times this weekend, however, Giuliani pleaded for privacy in his family affairs.
“The responsibility is mine,” Giuliani told reporters in Southern California yesterday. “I believe that these problems with blended families are challenges; sometimes they are. And the challenges are best worked on in private.”
McCain’s wife, Cindy, was active in his 2000 presidential bid. She suffered a stroke in 2004 and is reportedly fully recovered, but hasn’t had much of a presence in the lead-up to 2008.
Conversely, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards have been fixtures in their husbands’ 2008 campaigns from the start.
Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after the 2004 election, but reportedly is doing well and has made numerous appearances.
Michelle Obama’s decision to give her husband her blessing to join the race was well publicized after she had expressed apprehension about its effect on their family. Obama often remarks on her strength, most recently in a published response to the Clintons’ appearance together in Selma.
Candidates are likely to shy away from the “two-for-one” the Clintons promised when Bill was running for president, and competing with the Clintons is nearly impossible, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“I think that they’re all going to be selling themselves, using their spouses to show the fullness of who they are,” Walsh said. “I’m not sure any of them are going to be putting themselves out in the way that the Clintons talked about the first time around.”