Forum part of the annual Women's Conference

When Maria Shriver gathers five wives of 2008 presidential candidates for a forum next week, it will be a first-of-its-kind event. What it won’t be is a debate.

“I don’t want them to spend their time at this conference saying, ‘My husband thinks this and my husband thinks that,'” Shriver said. “One of the criticisms of (presidential) debates is that people don’t get to know who the people are, that they are canned. I am hoping that we will have a very real conversation with five women who have extraordinary lives and that people will understand who they are and what they believe.”

Shriver will moderate the forum, which includes Michelle Obama, Jeri Thompson, Cindy McCain, Elizabeth Edwards and Ann Romney.

It is one of the signature events at the annual daylong Women’s Conference on Tuesday at the Long Beach Convention Center. Shriver co-hosts the conference along with her husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As she said, “What Davos is to economic forums this is to women.”

Other events include a conversation between Schwarzenegger and former British minister Tony Blair, as well as appearances by Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, Muhammad Yunis, Mexico’s first lady Margarita Zavala, Geraldine Ferraro, Christine Todd Whitman and other personalities such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Eckhart Tolle, Nora Ephron and Joan Baez.

But it’s the gathering of spouses that is especially timely. This has been a campaign season in which the media has devoted an unprecedented amount of coverage to candidates’ spouses, to the point where Shriver was sure some outlet would carry out the idea first.

“I got the idea 10 months ago, and I kept thinking that someone else is going to have this idea and beat me to it,” Shriver said.

In conjunction with the forum, CNN is planning to do a poll that will measure the influence of a candidate’s spouse on the way people vote, Shriver said. “You learn a lot about a person, I suppose, by who they have chosen as their mate,” she said.

In ways that would have been unheard of two generations ago, each woman has been thrust into the political fray. Edwards, for instance, has taken on Ann Coulter. Thompson has been alternately labeled as a “trophy wife” and a skilled political strategist, with enormous influence on her husband Fred Thompson’s decisions.

“These are women who are outspoken, they have had careers,” Shriver said. “They are campaigning not so much as surrogates but in their own right.”

And of course, they are involved a campaign that includes a former presidential spouse now seeking the highest office, Hillary Clinton. She has undoubtedly helped change the dynamics of what a spouse does on the trail.

“Hillary Clinton is saying to the nation, ‘Choose me not so much on the time I have spent as a senator but on my life’s experiences,” Shriver said. “She is saying ‘Judge me as a first lady. Judge me as a mother. Judge me as a political servant. Judge me for my life’s work.’ These women have had extraordinary life’s work. And I think that because they come to this role really with different life experiences than women may have had 20 years ago, for example, I think that changes how we look at running mates, because that is what they are being called.”

Shriver herself has had a great degree of influence throughout Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial tenure, playing a pivotal role in reviving his reelection chances after the governor backed a series of ill-fated electoral initiatives in 2005. She reportedly played a big part in the hiring of Democrat Susan Kennedy as Schwarzengger’s new chief of staff, and in moving him to the political center. Shriver certainly developed a political acumen from a young age, given her family’s political roots. Her earliest memory is as a five-year-old girl, campaigning for her uncle’s presidential bid, she said.

“I think it is unrealistic to think that these women don’t have huge influence on the person they are married to,” Shriver said. “It used to be ‘Oh my God! The spouses, pillow talking!’ Well, let’s hope so. And it should be that they are pillow talking. They are office talking. They are talking. It’s a good thing.”

The 2008 campaign also has seen spouses disagree with their mates. Edwards, for instance, has said that she is in favor of gay marriage, while her husband is not. Given her divergent political affiliation from her husband’s, Shriver knows that territory.

“I know people are like, ‘Oh my God, what does that mean?'” Shriver said. “Well, it means that there’s two people and I think that means that they are not afraid to talk about the fact that there other other issues out there, other opinions. I would much prefer to have that than someone who says, ‘I have one opinion, I only want to talk to people of one opinion, and surround myself with people of one opinion.”

But Shriver declined to judge how the spouses have done on the trail so far. “There’s no set way of doing it.”

Not participating in the forum is Judith Giuliani, who has has taken an active role in her husband’s campaign — and has taken a few hits in the media. Among other things, she has been the subject of an unflattering profile in Vanity Fair.

Is she getting a bad rap?

“I would never judge her based on what I have read,” Shriver said. “I would never do that because I know how often times that can be inaccurate. I don’t know Judith Giuliani, and I am sure she is doing the best she can.”

Nevertheless, Shriver, a former NBC correspondent and anchor, thinks that the media’s increased coverage of spouses is a good thing.

“I think that more and more (the media) will not worry so much about what kind of first lady or first spouse they will be, but what kind of person they are today, and not rush to try to make fights between different people,” she said. “And to recognize that this is really tough work, being out there. These are people balancing families, children, legacies, heritage, aging parents, jobs, their own opinions, expectations. You know, it is not simple.”

Shriver cautions that her own experience doesn’t mean that she’s prepping for a bid for elective office.

“No. I don’t plan on running,” Shriver said. “People ask me that, it seems, almost hourly. It is not something that is on my radar.”

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