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Maria Shriver’s annual Women’s Conference, to be held Wednesday in Long Beach, only upped the drama when Shriver decided to very publicly endorse Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton at a January rally.

“I got people saying, ‘How could you do that? You run the largest women’s conference in the nation. You should have supported a woman,’ ” Shriver tells Variety. “I had other people coming up and saying, ‘Oh, that is going to be a problem for your husband, why did you do that?’ And others said ‘That is so great. I was going to be mad if you didn’t do that.’

“It was a lesson to me, which I seem to have to learn over and over again, that you have to do what is right for you, because no matter what, people are going to have an opinion.”

That theme of empowerment will be on the minds of many of the dozens of participants in this year’s Women’s Conference, expected to draw some 14,000 to the Long Beach Convention Center, with many of the sessions webcast on the org’s Website, Californiawomen.org. A pre-conference event, featuring Rachael Ray and a series of book signings and networking, will be held Tuesday evening.

The lineup includes Bono, Jennifer Lopez, Anne Sweeney, Bonnie Raitt, Madeleine Albright, Sister Joan Chittister, Gloria Steinem, Heidi Klum, Christiane Amanpour and Marian Wright Edelman, among others.

Shriver, a former NBC News anchor and correspondent, has tried to program the conference like she would “one big television show,” with once-in-a-lifetime pairings and conversations “you cannot see anywhere else.”

Among them are a pairing of her husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and investment guru Warren Buffett, moderated by Chris Matthews. The theme is leadership and the economy, but the presidential race will undoubtedly be a factor: Schwarzenegger has endorsed McCain and Buffett is backing Obama.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi will be in conversation to talk about “leadership, legacy and life,” according to the program, moderated by CNN’s Campbell Brown.

Michael J. Fox and Russell Simmons will talk about “men who use their voices to change the world,” with Deborah Norville moderating.

In addition, Steinem, Billie Jean King, Betty Chinn, Louise Hay and Ivelise Markotvits will be recipients of the annual Minerva Awards, honoring women with extraordinary accomplishments.

But as much as the conference is geared to a variety of topics, it will be all but impossible to avoid women’s role in politics this year, particularly with less than two weeks to go before Election Day.

Brown also will moderate a panel called “Women at War With Women, and How That Impacts the Presidential Election,” with speakers including CNN commentator Amy Holmes, legal and political analyst Susan Estrich and Los Angeles Times pollster Susan H. Pinkus.

Shriver says, “It has been an incredible year for women, not all positive, and I think this year at any kind of gathering of women there has been this debate about what is the right kind of women to be, what are the right choices for women, what do we expect in a woman leader? What does a woman leader talk like, sound like? And I think women have been very vocal about what is acceptable on all fronts.

“So I think that women started the year debating Hillary Clinton and they are going to end it debating Sarah Palin, Two different kinds of women, two different sets of choices, and is that OK? And if not, why not?”

She adds, “I find it interesting that women seem to be engaged in (these questions) and men don’t seem to be engaged in the same manner about men and their choices.”

Just as there was debate over the way that the media covered Hillary Clinton, there has been some criticism of the treatment of Sarah Palin, especially following her interview with Katie Couric.

But Shriver, a former NBC correspondent and anchor, believes that much has to do with how Palin has presented herself.

“There is always a debate about the media,” she says. “So I think Sarah Palin presents the image she wants to present. She is in charge of her choices. She is a grown woman, so she can decide, ‘Do I want to do a press conference or not? And if not, why not?’ That affects how you get covered in the media. It affects how you get depicted.”

Noting that her father, Robert “Sargent” Shriver, had to endure scrutiny as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Shriver says, “That is the game you are jumping into. You have to be able to roll with that program.”

Shriver’s home in Pacific Palisades includes campaign signs for both Obama and McCain out front, reflecting she and her husband’s divergent choices this year. But she doesn’t express second thoughts for coming forward at the January rally, which featured Caroline Kennedy, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

“The New York Times wrote that it was the greatest political rally in 25 years, and I thought, ‘How is that possible? There was no candidate there. I thought to myself, ‘That is so interesting.’ And it was four very different women, who made very different choices, and have run their lives in four very different ways. And yet they all have been accepting of one another and were supportive of one another, and the audience seemed to react to that.

“I thought for me it was a very powerful moment on a lot of levels,” she adds. “It was, for me, a way to use my voice that felt correct and true.”