Candidates' spouses wedded to winning

Wives charm voters, deliver messages in fight for White House

Campaign 2000

November 01, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Standing near the Xena Warrior Princess poster before a crowd of gay and lesbian voters, Ernestine Bradley is asked whether her husband would appoint an openly gay person to his Cabinet. The event's host, sensing an awkward moment, says the candidate's wife is not here to make promises. But just then Bradley interrupts with an emphatic "YES!" and the place erupts in applause.

So what if aides say her husband, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, never made any such Cabinet pledge? Like other campaign wives, Ernestine Bradley is not here so much to nail policy statements as she is to secure a victory -- the campaign's own Warrior Princess.

The spouses of the leading presidential candidates may say they are political amateurs -- none boast law degrees or personalized policy plans or dare advertise themselves as "political advisers." But with hyper-ingratiating campaign appearances and grueling stump schedules, most seem as serious about winning as the predecessor with whom they avoid comparisons, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The spouses may not look warlike -- they charm, they praise, they empathize -- but clearly they hope to help kill the opposition, with kindness or whatever else works.

Ernestine Schlant Bradley -- sometimes Dr. Schlant, but these days "Mrs. Bradley" -- tells crowds, "I am not a politician," then skillfully serves up the campaign line. Tipper Gore, Vice President Al Gore's wife, is an effervescent booster -- a relentlessly chipper Gore, aggressively wooing voters for her husband. Laura Bush, wife of Republican front-runner George W. Bush, and Cindy McCain, married to GOP Sen. John McCain, go the 1950s homemaker route, all but baking off the competition -- even as they subtly launch character grenades that could hurt the Democrats in this post-Clinton election.

It's a delicate balance: Spouses aspire to seem candid but not controversial, on message but not programmed. Their job is to explain the candidate's soul, and this year they're busier than ever.

"There's a lot of high visibility," Republican strategist Ed Gillespie said of campaign spouses in this election. "In a period of peace and prosperity, personalities become very important. Who you are becomes just as important as what your policy papers are. Spouses help achieve that understanding."

Everywhere you look in the campaigns, a spouse is not far behind -- Sabina Forbes, wife of multimillionaire Republican Steve Forbes, does campaign office grunt work and goes door to door; Carol Bauer, wife of conservative activist Gary L. Bauer, is on the stump voicing faith in God, country and husband; Shelley Buchanan, wife of Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, leaves the cat, Gipper, at home to be seen but rarely heard next to her husband; and potential candidate Donald Trump is smirking to CNN's Larry King that should he require a first lady, "24 hours, it's done."

There are no nascent New York Senate candidates here, and Bradley is the only one with a full-time job. Instead, the spouses appeal as mothers experienced in skinned knees and birthday cakes. If it seems at times like a goody-gumdrops campaign style -- recently in Concord, N.H., the 51-year-old Tipper Gore bounced up and down gleefully when a voter said her son was turning 17 -- it gives way to steely single-mindedness. Moments after her birthday exclamation, Gore stared intently into a Channel 9 news camera and solemnly said, "We're fighting for every vote we can get."

Humanizing image

Most important of all, Gore humanizes her husband's image. There is Tipper on a hot-air balloon, riding Space Mountain twice, taking a hike in the White Mountains -- a free spirit who can combat this constant sniping that her soul mate is a still life. Gore has talked about her husband's sex appeal, telling a television reporter that he sleeps in the nude and confiding to Oprah Winfrey how hunky he is.

If Gore is adept at controlling spin, then Bradley tries to present herself as something of an antidote -- vowing ignorance about politics and polls. As a surrogate for her husband, Bradley submits to political questions reluctantly and refers to her campaign self jokingly as "wifey."

It is a highly domestic twist for a woman who has carved out a long academic career after arriving from Germany in 1957. She has taught German and comparative literature at New Jersey's Montclair State University since 1971 and is taking a leave of absence to campaign for her husband. She has just published her third book, "The Language of Silence," a criticism of postwar German writers' treatment of the Holocaust.

But when touring for her husband, the 64-year-old Bradley plays the self-described "disciple." On a recent swing through Connecticut and Rhode Island, she took tough political questions with a mixture of self-mockery ("My gosh, my ignorance is profound.") and lavish praise for her candidate ("This is where I think my husband is so brilliant, I just adore him!").

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