WASHINGTON – If Democrats win the presidency, America's next first lady could be a doctor tending to her patients while her husband tends the country. She could be a fabulously wealthy philanthropist who speaks five languages. She could be an immigrant, an author, the child of Holocaust (search) survivors.
Wives of the leading presidential hopefuls are accomplished in their own right as well as an important influence on their husband's political career.
That influence is not as visiuch clout in her husband's political work can polarize people. They are quick to emphasize their devotion to family and husband, in the manner of Laura Bush.
Yet interviews with the wives, some of the candidates and their aides reveal that almost all the spouses act as integral parts of the campaigns.
"I speak up," said Adele Graham, who reads everything written about her husband, Florida Sen. Bob Graham (search), and is known to call his office and politely make suggestions. "I tell them how I feel about things, and I think they listen."
Most of the wives say they have no interest in running for office themselves, even though many are well-versed in politics and policy. The headstrong Teresa Heinz Kerry (search), wife of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is the only one who doesn't completely reject the idea.
"If I live to 100, maybe," she said. "Who knows? I might be one of those wacky old ladies who wakes up one day and decides she's really going to change the world."
Heinz Kerry, who along with Judy Steinberg Dean does not use her husband's last name outside politics, has a long record of advocating for the environment, health care, human rights and women's equality. She donates money to the causes as the head of the $1.2 billion Heinz Foundation endowment, a job she inherited when her first husband, Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, died in a plane crash.
Most of the wives travel the country speaking on their husband's behalf, acting as unpaid advisers and revealing the personal side of the politician. They don't have the experience of working for several candidates like the professional staff, but their husbands often turn to them for a frank and fresh perspective.
Dick Gephardt (search) credits his wife, Jane, with helping him change his position from an opponent of abortion rights to a supporter. When developing health care policy, he asks about her experience as a former insurance biller and assistant in a pediatrician's office.
"It's not like I'm calling the shots on staff and funding and all of this," Jane Gephardt said. "I'm more of a behind-the-scenes adviser, I think. Dick likes to talk to me about these issues because he said I really come to it from a constituent's viewpoint. He says I have that good Midwestern common sense."
Elizabeth Edwards listens in on conference calls with staff working for her husband, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search). She contributes her intimate knowledge of how he thinks.
For example, she said his aides once discussed having him advocate for a cap on CEO pay, but she knew he would say the market should determine such things. "They had these ideas and I said John would never go for that," she said.
But she says she doesn't try to usurp staff decisions. "He doesn't climb into bed and I say, 'You ought to do X,"' she said. "They've done the research."
Hadassah Lieberman counseled her husband, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), through his decision to go to the Senate chamber and criticize former President Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (search). In "An Amazing Adventure," a book the Liebermans co-wrote about the 2000 campaign, she described the Lewinsky speech as "the most difficult, wrenching day of Joe's political career."
But the speech cemented Lieberman's reputation as a voice of morality, which many saw as the reason Al Gore picked him as a running mate when was trying to distance himself from Clinton's salacious behavior.
"I don't think that anyone was closer to the decision about making that speech than Hadassah," said Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein.
Hadassah Lieberman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated from the Czech Republic when she was a child, would be the first foreign-born first lady since London native Louisa Adams in the 1820s. So would Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was born and raised in Mozambique when it was a Portuguese colony and speaks Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian besides English.
Lieberman also is one of two wives who have co-authored a book. Former teacher Adele Graham is the other. She co-wrote "Finish For The Future," which described programs to prevent dropouts, and plans to advocate school volunteerism while traveling for her husband's campaign.
Judy Dean is an exception to the wives who act as political operatives. As Howard Dean's candidacy gains momentum, she remains focused on her general medicine practice.
She's given a few interviews recently at his request -- something she didn't do when he was governor of Vermont -- but says she will not travel or work on his campaign. She says she intends to continue practicing medicine if her husband becomes president.
Dean says his wife's nontraditional role will hurt him with some voters, but he thinks most women will relate to her.
"It's never been done, but it's the history of humankind to do things that have never been done," he said. "I think she would be a real role model for America -- a woman who doesn't depend on her husband's career, and that's the majority of women these days."
Of the three long-shot candidates in the race, only Al Sharpton (search) is married. His wife, Kathy Jordan, a former backup singer for James Brown, declined to be interviewed. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun are divorced, which would make them the first unmarried president since Woodrow Wilson (search)'s wife died in 1914. He remarried a year later while still in office.
Colleen Kelley, who wrote a book about first ladies, said politicians have always tended to marry smart, assertive women who can help them shape their careers, but historically their influence has been kept under wraps. Today's political wives are more at liberty to show their smarts, but still are expected to act like a traditional mother and wife and not talk out to too much about political issues.
"She has to be able to walk that line and not move too fast and too far," said Kelley, an associate professor of communication at Penn State Erie. "If she makes America even a tad bit uncomfortable, it's going to backfire and hurt her husband."
Kelley said First Lady Laura Bush (search) appears more comfortable in a traditional role, sticking to speeches about childhood learning and literacy and generally avoiding controversial statements. There have been glimpses of political opinion, though, as when she said within days of her husband taking office that she did not think the landmark Roe v. Wade (search) abortion-rights ruling should be undone, despite the president's strong opposition to abortion.
Elizabeth Edwards says her husband's advisers may not have been too happy when she criticized President Bush's approach to foreign policy during an appearance in March, suggesting he thinks he is "the biggest, baddest cowboy in town."
Teresa Heinz Kerry is not shy about voicing her opinion -- on the political and personal details. Some have questioned whether a woman who is so frank about everything from her millionaire lifestyle to her love for her first husband could hurt Kerry's campaign. She said she just laughs off that concern.
"You can't take it seriously," she said. "If you do know who you are and what you are about, then it's not so bad. I would think it's devil if you didn't."