The Couples Campaign

In January 1992, as Bill Clinton's candidacy was foundering amid allegations of infidelity, his wife joined him at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire. They were on a rescue mission. "We love each other," Hillary Rodham Clinton told the crowd. "We support each other." As for Bill, he sold himself to the onlookers as one half of a political team; Hillary was the reason that he had run. "She woke up one morning and said, 'Bill, we have to do this'." He touted her résumé: Yale Law, successful attorney, years of work on education and children's issues. He had a new campaign slogan, he said: "Buy One, Get One Free." It worked, of course.

On her first swing through New Hampshire recently, Hillary and Bill were a team once more--even if he wasn't with her. Republicans fear Team Clinton above all, she said. "I'm the one person they're most afraid of because Bill and I do know how to beat them; we have consistently, and we will do it again."

But this time, the Clintons aren't the only legal-political team running for the Democratic nomination. In fact, all three leading contenders are Buy One, Get One Free pairings. Sen. Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, is a hospital administrator with deep political ties to Chicago's South Side--and a Harvard Law degree to match her husband's. John Edwards met his wife, Elizabeth, at the University of North Carolina's law school, and she is an attorney and author with her own devoted following on the campaign trail. "This is a generational thing," says David Axelrod, Obama's chief adviser. "This is what modern marriages are."

There is no couples campaign on the Republican side, however: none of the top contenders is part of a package deal, and their wives aren't public-arena professionals. Cultural traditions may be one reason. Republican pollster Frank Luntz, author of "Words That Work," suggests another: "Democrats are collective, Republicans are individualistic." Then there is marital history. Except for Mitt Romney, everyone in the top tier has been divorced at least once. "The joke you hear is that only the Mormon has had one wife," says Luntz.

Partnership has its privileges. Michelle Obama's charm and connections helped bring together the families of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Jesse Jackson in support of her husband's candidacy. In Iowa, says Luntz, his focus groups show that Elizabeth Edwards is perhaps the most popular public figure in the state. A dogged campaigner, she connects with her patient, sympathetic manner--and with tales of loss and pain in her life (the death of a son, her battle with breast cancer) recounted in a recent book.

But partnership has its political drawbacks, too, as the Clintons learned long ago. Questions about Hillary's law practice and business deals dogged the '92 campaign--and the first years of the Clinton administration. Now, in the age of blogs, cell-phone cameras and Photoshop, Clinton II has constructed a titanium-clad war room to handle stories--real or imagined, personal or professional--about the candidate or her spouse.

The Obamas are about to get drawn into this maelstrom as well. Anti-Obama sites dwell on Michelle's sizable income--$315,000 in 2006--and her service on the board of a food processor that voted to close a pickle-packing plant in Colorado last year, putting 150 low-wage workers, many of them Hispanic, out of work. The company gave them generous severance and job-help packages, but it is still a decision she may have to defend--and so may her husband. In a couples campaign, it's Buy One, Get One--but it's never really free.

Join the Discussion