Spouses gather for chat at Women's Conference

At a first-of-its-kind gathering of presidential candidates’ spouses on Tuesday, what was perhaps most surprising was that the wives downplayed the extent of their influence over their husbands’ campaigns.

In a year in which many of them have grabbed headlines and attention just like their husbands, they nevertheless emphasized how consumed they were with the tasks of raising families, juggling careers and supporting their mates rather than in dictating campaign strategy.

Jeri Thompson, Ann Romney, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain and Elizabeth Edwards gathered as part of the Women’s Conference, a day-long event led by California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver.

Thompson dismissed press accounts in which she has been called a “trophy wife” and characterized as the ringleader of her husband Fred’s campaign.

“I have a one year old, and I think most of you all know how much time and effort that takes,” Thompson said.

Of media reports that she is the guiding force of the campaign, she said, “I am not even qualified to do any of the other stuff.”

The statement was perhaps a bit too modest for Shriver, who moderated the forum. She noted that Thompson has worked as a media consultant, but Thompson still downplayed her role.

Elizabeth Edwards said that often what she says gets blown out of proportion and taken to mean that she is dictating what her husband should say or do on the campaign trail.

“In truth, I think it is overplayed because all you are doing is expressing what you think is best for your husband as your spouse, not as a candidate,” Edwards said.

Edwards, who is battling a recurrence of breast cancer, has been particularly outspoken on the campaign trail, at one point taking on Ann Coulter during one of the right-wing commentator’s appearances on “Hardball.”

“Sometimes, if we think he is being misrepresented … it is our job to say so,” said Edwards, who has often been deployed as a surrogate giving interviews and speeches for her husband. But she later quipped that “if it ended up on the front page of Drudge, I know I didn’t say it right.”

The forum wasn’t a debate, and much more of a feel-good session. The wives were seated on a living-room set, and it rarely touched on anything political — the war in Iraq wasn’t even mentioned. In fact, by the end, all five women locked their hands together and held them up on center stage, as if to show their unity of the often hard tasks that they face.

Obama said that “in any marriage you come together to talk about issues you care about” but she stopped short of saying just how much influence she has over the campaign. She drew laughs when she said, “I would like to think he has the good sense to understand that I am correct — but in no way do I expect it.”

Romney said that she was selective about when to chime in on an issue and when to not, particularly when her husband Mitt was governor of Massachusetts. She cited as an expample when Romney worked on a healthcare plan for the state.

“I loved being peripherally involved, where you are understanding the conflict and all that is going on,” she said. But “it is not like you are in the chair there, making important decisions.”

The Women’s Conference, held at the Long Beach Convention Center, also included appearances by former British Prime minister Tony Blair and Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah, as well as entertainers like Jamie Lee Curtis and Ed Begley Jr.

The hourlong spouses’ panel drew the attention of the political press, coming as it did during a campaign in which a former president’s mate, Hillary Clinton, is running for the White House.

But most spouses talked of the challenges that they faced with the added scrutiny and attention that comes from a national campaign.

Because her husband just declared his candidacy last month, Thompson was the newest to the campaign trail, a process she likened to “walking down the street with no clothes on.”

Nevertheless, she said her husband has been there to support her through it. “It has already deepened our marriage.”

Two wives have been through a national campaign before: McCain and Edwards. The former seemed to be retreating from exposure and the latter seemed to be welcoming it. McCain said that in contrast to 2000, she has become “more comfortable in my skin. I have learned to say ‘No.'”

But Edwards said that she has learned that “our life is going to be an open book — you might as well get used to it now.

“Most of the attention is good,” she said. “It can be really affirming.”

Shriver asked whether a candidates spouse influenced a voters’ decision. She cited Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign promise that by electing him, voters were getting two for the price one: him and Hillary.

McCain acknowledged that voters “do look at both of you very carefully,” noting that she often heard from people they met on the campaign trail, “I like the way both of you look and act together.”

“That is because it tells you something about him, and the relationship he has with his family,” Edwards said.

Obama talked of the lengths to which she and her husband have tried to “stay grounded.”

Despite the demands of the schedule, Obama said she been been able to stump for her husband by day and be back home with her kids by night.

Their two daughters have adjusted, she said, perhaps quicker than expected. The “bargaining chip” was that they would get a dog. They haven’t gotten it yet, but they are talking a lot about it, Obama said.

“I said, ‘Look, you are getting a dog. Knock it off.'”

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