WASHINGTON – A political consultant, two lawyers and a pair of battle-tested veterans of presidential campaigns are in the thick of the fight for the White House, urging their spouses on.
Two of the prospective first ladies are managing life-threatening diseases. One would be the first woman of color with the title. A third recently completed her latest humanitarian trip, to Vietnam.
All but one of them are mothers, including of young children. One's a grandmother of 10, too.
Americans have a variety of women to get to know in the campaign, quite apart from the very well known former first lady who's running for president in her own right.
In a race marked by the spectacle of a two-term president, Bill Clinton, promoting wife Hillary Rodham Clinton for the White House, these women carry on the tradition of spouse as potential first lady, but not always in traditional ways.
Elizabeth Edwards and Ann Romney talk about their incurable cancer (Edwards) and multiple sclerosis (Romney). Michelle Obama tells funny tales about the juggling she does to get two girls off to school and herself to work.
"First ladies, first kids. It helps us relate to them. It helps to humanize them," says Robert Watson, author of two books about first ladies and the director of American studies at Lynn University in Florida.
A look at seven of them:
She is the girl who, at 15, became smitten with an 18-year-old Mitt Romney and then waited for him while he went to college and then to France to complete traditional missionary service for the Mormon church.
As days turned to months and then years, his father, George, watched over Ann, an Episcopalian, and helped convert her to the Mormon faith. Then she went off to Brigham Young University to wait for her future husband.
They wed in 1969, three months after he came home.
She is one of the weapons the Romney campaign is using to appeal to the GOP's social conservatives by setting him apart from his major rivals, who are in second and third marriages, including two with significantly younger wives. On Monday, she posted her own Web site.
She told supporters at a campaign event that the biggest difference between them and her husband is that "he's had only one wife." She's also been introduced as Romney's starter wife and trophy wife "all in one" — another dig at the opposition.
The mother of five grown sons and grandmother of 10, Ann Romney, 57, has devoted her life to the men in it. She has said she was both satisfied and privileged to have been able to stay at home, but she also has talked about how "exasperating and overwhelming" it was to be the only female in a house overflowing with testosterone.
As first lady of Massachusetts, Ann Romney was active in teen pregnancy prevention and faith-based work with inner-city children. She was the administration's chief liaison to religious and faith-based social service organizations.
Nearly a decade ago, she began to feel numbness in her right leg. It spread, leaving her right side without feeling. There was fatigue, then depression, then self pity. Doctors diagnosed multiple sclerosis around Thanksgiving 1998.
She says the MS is in remission and she takes no medication to treat it. Instead, she relies on alternative and holistic treatments, such as her lifelong pursuit of horseback riding. "Joy therapy," she calls it.
Last year, she won a gold medal for the United States Dressage Federation at the Grand Prix level.
Michelle Robinson had her doubts about the attorney-colleague she was assigned to mentor, the black guy with the funny-sounding name who grew up, of all places, on an island.
He impressed her nonetheless.
She married him nearly 15 years ago, never thinking she'd have to make a political speech, let alone live a life as a politician's wife. Her husband was, after all, a law professor and civil rights attorney in Chicago.
But Michelle Obama seems to have learned fast.
She was at first resistant to now-Sen. Barack Obama's decision to run for president just two years into his first term. Now, she is his biggest booster — and a popular draw in her own right.
She builds him up by gently cutting him down to size, the celebrity candidate made human. "He's like, 'Mr. GQ' all of a sudden," she told a crowd. "He's got, like, five white shirts and three black suits, and all of a sudden, he's best-dressed."
But her remark last week that "If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it is just a dream," prompted a hasty clarification from the Obama campaign that he does not need to win the state to carry on.
Michelle Obama, 43, grew up in a working-class family on Chicago's South Side. Her father was a city employee; her mother stayed at home. After Princeton and Harvard Law School, she returned to Chicago and the law firm of Sidley and Austin, where she met her husband. She later worked for the mayor, then ran a nonprofit that trained young people for public service careers before landing at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She is vice president of community and external affairs.
On the campaign trail, Michelle Obama appeals to women who feel pulled in multiple directions by the twin pressures of career and family. She says that even she — a woman with a famous husband (who sometimes forgets to put away the butter), her own high-powered career and a million-dollar mansion — feels the same way, too.
Daughters Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6, travel with her when they aren't attending private school in Chicago. She limits her political travel and tries to get home in time to tuck them in at night when they aren't with her.
The experience has had its down sides. Michelle Obama has been criticized for serving on the board of TreeHouse Foods, Inc. The Illinois-based food company supplies Wal-Mart, whose labor practices her husband has criticized. She resigned in May, citing increased demands on her time.
When her husband won the New Mexico governor's race, he finished his speech and plunged happily into the election-night crowd. His wife, on the other hand, went upstairs for a quieter celebration with friends.
Barbara Richardson is a private person who prefers to work behind the scenes, unlike her spotlight-craving husband. So it's fitting that she was not exactly overjoyed by the idea of his running for president.
"I'll tell you what I tell him, 'That's another life and another wife,"' she said several years ago as speculation about a presidential bid mounted. "Honest to God, not my bag. It's just not something that I even want to contemplate."
Well, he's running. And she's warming to it. She has started showing up at debates like the other spouses, lest her absence be taken as a sign that she doesn't support the man who could become the nation's first Latino president.
Barbara and Bill Richardson are childhood sweethearts who met in the 1960s when they attended high schools near each other in Massachusetts. She was 16 and offered him a ride one day. He accepted.
They celebrated 35 years of marriage this year, and she is said to be better than him at handling their money.
She has a degree in psychology and has lived in Washington, when he was a congressman and energy secretary during the Clinton administration, and then in a spectacular penthouse atop the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. They currently live in the governor's mansion in Santa Fe, N.M.
He still calls her "Barbie;" she still calls him "Billy." They have no children.
As first lady of New Mexico, she has worked to improve the state's childhood immunization record, and has focused on reducing domestic violence.
Rarely seen and never heard, Jeri Kehn is a former political consultant who is said to wield considerable influence behind the scenes of husband Fred Thompson's nascent campaign. Inside-the-Washington-Beltway chatter pegged her as the hand behind a recent staff shake-up that led to the campaign manager's replacement.
She is 40, thin and blonde, with movie-star good looks — a combination that has led to some snarky comments about her being a "trophy wife" and potential liability for Thompson as he courts socially conservative Republicans. He is 24 years older than she, his second wife.
Thompson shrugs off the criticism about his wife's clout, saying she's only doing what he asks her to do. "Thank goodness she's there," he said.
Kehn met then-U.S. senator from Tennessee, on July 4, 1996, in Nashville.
She moved to Washington a few years later, and worked for the Republican National Committee and then on Capitol Hill for the Senate Republican Conference. She also worked at a public relations-lobbying firm before taking a political consulting job at the law firm of Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand.
They married in June 2002 in her hometown of Naperville, Ill.
Jeri Kehn all but retreated from Washington's social scene after having children — a daughter, Hayden, who turns 4 in October, and a son, Samuel, approaching 1. But she is still talked about in some quarters for baring her cleavage at a recent White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
She would become one of the youngest first ladies in U.S. history if her husband is elected.
Elizabeth Edwards is on a mission.
She is one of two in the group who has been through the rigors — and the ringer — of a national political campaign, and she isn't pulling her punches this time around, or heeding the advice of most political consultants either.
She is speaking out about her husband and his rivals, to the point of even overshadowing him at times.
Elizabeth Edwards has suggested that Hillary Clinton may be avoiding talk about women's issues so she can "behave as a man." She has hinted that Obama's signature plea, for hope and unity, was lifted from her husband's White House run in 2004. And she went head-to-head on national television with conservative pundit Ann Coulter over Coulter's "hateful" comments, including her wish that Edwards' husband would be assassinated by terrorists.
She seems single-minded in her quest to help him win the Democratic presidential nomination, even while she copes with a grave disease.
The breast cancer she was diagnosed with three years ago and thought she had beaten has returned, this time in incurable form. She receives treatment while continuing to campaign.
Elizabeth Anania Edwards, 58, is a Navy brat who moved around a lot and says she is comfortable walking into a roomful of strangers. As a child, she went to school in Japan, where her father, a decorated Navy pilot, was stationed with a reconnaissance squadron, flying missions over China and North Korea.
An insomniac, she surfs the Web or shops online when sleep won't come; ebay.com is one of her favorite sites. She keeps a diary on her husband's Web site (no entries since late June) and is often caught commenting on other peoples' blogs.
She earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of North Carolina, then went on to study American literature before she switched gears and enrolled in law school. There, she met John Edwards, four years her junior.
They wed 30 years ago, the weekend after they took the bar exam in July 1977, and have celebrated every anniversary with a meal at a Wendy's restaurant.
She clerked for a federal judge and worked for North Carolina's attorney general before becoming a high-powered bankruptcy attorney. But she quit work, changed her name to Edwards and stayed home numbly watching the Weather Channel — on mute — after their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in an automobile accident in 1996.
Consumed by grief, she visited Wade's grave daily for two years. They then decided to have more children. Not to replace Wade, she has said, but to bring joy back into their home.
With help from fertility treatments, Elizabeth Edwards was 48 when Emma Claire was born, and 50 when Jack arrived. There is a third child, Cate, a 25-year-old Harvard law student.
In 1997, Elizabeth Edwards and her family moved to Washington after her husband was elected to the Senate. After he lost the 2004 presidential campaign as John Kerry's running mate, they moved to a 28,000-square-foot house in Chapel Hill, N.C., which the candidate has been criticized for building.
Years ago, she began writing a letter to her children for after she dies, a project that seems more poignant now in the face of her disease.
When Judith Giuliani rings her husband on his cell phone, he takes the call — even when he's in the middle of an important speech, as happened recently during an appearance before National Rifle Association members in Washington.
She is known as the divorcee who had a public affair with the then-married mayor of New York and has had a rocky relationship with his children.
She also has been portrayed as a social climber, a meddler in her husband's campaign and an extravagant shopaholic.
The couple — it's the third marriage for each — have stressed their devotion to each other, and he has been quick to rise to her defense.
They also endured a backlash when Rudy Giuliani said he'd welcome her to Cabinet meetings if elected, particularly on topics that interest her.
A political newcomer, Judith Giuliani often was with her husband on the campaign trail at first, but those appearances since have been scaled back.
Judith Ann Stish is a registered nurse who grew up in the coal-mining town of Hazleton, Pa. Her father, who walked her down the aisle at her May 2003 wedding to Giuliani, worked in circulation for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
She graduated from nursing school in 1974 and worked at a hospital in Allentown, Pa., before marrying Jeffrey Ross that year. He was a salesman for U.S. Surgical. The couple, both working for the company, left for Charlotte, N.C., where they sold surgical staplers to doctors and hospitals.
They divorced in 1979 and, days later, Judith married businessman Bruce Nathan. They adopted a daughter, Whitney, in 1985. The marriage ended bitterly in the early 1990s as they fought over custody and other issues.
Judith Giuliani, now 53, has said she became a single, working mother. She enrolled in business classes at New York University and sometimes took Whitney with her when she couldn't find a sitter.
She was living with a boyfriend when she and Giuliani met at a cigar bar on Manhattan's East Side.
She was a constant companion during the breakup of his second marriage and during treatment for prostate cancer. She also was by his side during the Sept. 11 attacks and the aftermath, helping with the city's medical response.
They wed in a lavish ceremony in front of 400 guests on the lawn of the New York mayor's official residence. Judith Giuliani wore a Vera Wang gown studded with Swarovski crystals and pearls, and a diamond and pearl tiara.
She has worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb and as a managing director of Changing Our World, a fundraising company.
Cindy McCain has a lot on her plate.
Her husband John is running for president, again. She is chairwoman of Hensley & Co., her family's business, one of the nation's largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributors. She travels abroad on humanitarian missions and serves on the boards of several such groups. She has four children, including a recent college graduate and two sons in the military, one a 19-year-old Marine who has been sent to Iraq.
She flew to Vietnam in June to help during a week of surgeries with Operation Smile, which repairs cleft lips and palates and other facial deformities in children around the world. She is a member of its board.
"It is always amazing to see the kids just before they go into surgery and then right as they come out," she wrote in a journal on her husband's campaign Web site. "There is an immediate life changing difference."
In many ways, Cindy Hensley's life changed the minute she met John McCain. She was a 25-year-old teacher on spring break in Hawaii. He was 42, separated from his wife, and a Navy liaison officer to the Senate.
"He was really cute in his dress white uniform," she once said. "I couldn't turn him down."
They celebrated 27 years of marriage in May.
She has had a role in his elections since 1982 when he first ran for Congress from Arizona, with financial support from her father. She had to be dragged onto the campaign trail when he first ran for president in 2000, but came to enjoy it. Her priority, though, has been raising their children.
"That's the most important job I can do," she once told the AP. "I don't intend to turn out weird kids."
They've always lived in Phoenix, away from the glare of Washington, while her husband commutes home on weekends. Daughter Meghan graduated from Columbia University in May. The fourth child was the product of one of her humanitarian trips. She brought home a baby girl from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh and they adopted her.
Cindy McCain, now 53, says she's happy being a "traditional" wife and mother — albeit one worth millions. She is a lifelong NASCAR fan and lists Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as her role model.
But her life has not been without a few dark episodes.
In the late 1980s, after pain from back surgeries and pressure from the Keating Five savings and loan scandal that had ensnared her husband, she became addicted to painkillers she was stealing from a medical charity she had founded. She says she quit cold turkey in 1992 after her parents confronted her. Her husband did not know because he was away in Washington most of the time. Federal authorities investigated, she cooperated and agreed to community service. No charges were filed.
In April 2004, she suffered a stroke brought on by not taking her blood pressure medication. To get well, she spent a few months at a rented house in California, sleeping and walking to build stamina. Her speech eventually returned. Eight months later she was well enough to walk the route of a half-marathon, 13.1 miles, in an Arizona race.