When their husbands take the stage together to debate, they tend to argue about the war in Iraq or who's the toughest on international terrorism. A light moment might consist of a segue into healthcare policy or the battle over illegal immigration.
But on Tuesday in Long Beach, the wives of five of the top candidates for president found much more that united them during an hourlong forum that their hostess, California First Lady Maria Shriver, sponsored as part of the annual Conference on Women.
Yes, they seemed to unanimously agree, they would like to: see more of their husbands, reduce the influence of money in political campaigns, and meet voters one on one, rather than via television or giant rallies.
But the five women from both political parties drew the loudest response when they talked about the travails they shared with the thousands of women packed into the Long Beach Arena.
"We are struggling with this notion of balance," said Michelle Obama, 43, wife of Sen. Barack Obama. "I think that is what we are all facing as women, because we are overworked and we are over-scheduled and we are juggling, and we are not getting enough support that we need.
"There is a part of me that feels it's very therapeutic to be out on the road with other women and to say, 'Hey, you are not crazy, this is hard,' " Obama added to loud applause. The candidates' spouses downplayed any role as strategists or policymakers, saying they hoped they helped humanize their husbands and spread their messages. They agreed they spend a lot of time keeping their families running.
Jeri Thompson, wife of actor and Republican candidate Fred Thompson, said she was concentrating on her 4-year-old daughter and her son, who turns 1 this week. The one demand she made on the campaign trail? A changing table on the tour bus so she could diaper her infant.
Obama said she thought that the campaign had been a great learning experience for her daughters, ages 6 and 9, but that she tried to be home each night to read to them. The girls will win one other concession, she said: "They were like, 'You're running for president, we are getting a dog.' "
Elizabeth Edwards, 58, a veteran of one campaign with her husband four years ago, said she and fellow campaign veteran Cindy McCain, 53, wife of Sen. John McCain, were familiar with such paybacks.
"We can tell you," she said, "you are going to end up with more animals."
The audience offered a particularly warm response to Edwards, who was diagnosed seven months ago with inoperable cancer.
Scanning the tall, thin women arrayed beside her, Edwards said she was reminded of the "Sesame Street" song lyric:
"One of these things
Is not like the others."
"Everyone is so beautiful," Edwards said. "Which one doesn't belong?"
The former senator's wife also reached out to offer a reassuring pat to Thompson, 40, who seemed genuinely reticent about her entry into the presidential race, which her husband joined six weeks ago. The session represented something of a coming out for Thompson.
"I have read everything from you are the campaign mastermind, to you are the campaign strategist, you are the trophy wife, you are everything," said Shriver, as the women sat in a semicircle of blue armchairs. "Which is the right depiction of you?"
Thompson did not respond directly to any of those descriptions, saying she was focused on her children.
"I'm not even qualified to do a lot of the other stuff," she said.
She later noted that her husband had been in politics before, as a U.S. senator. "I haven't, not with this amount of exposure," Thompson said. "I've likened it, before, to walking down the street with no clothes on."
There was a notable silence from the audience, until Thompson added: "I mean, emotionally, and in all the other ways."
She seemed overwhelmed by her new prominence. Shriver, the former network news correspondent, asked her if she was scared.
"Absolutely," she answered. "I am afraid of embarrassing Fred. That would be my biggest fear. . . . I would be terrified of hurting him. It would break my heart. It would break anybody's heart."
The crowd seemed uncertain how to respond until Edwards offered: "Nobody is paying that much attention to us."
There were laughs all around.
Shriver said the gathering of spouses from the two parties -- "to talk about their lives, to talk about the campaign trail, to talk about what it's like when someone in your family gets up and runs for president" -- represented a historic breakthrough.
The women made no such lofty claims. But they did seem to enjoy themselves.
Ann Romney, 57, wife of Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, said that the strains of campaigning were obvious and that she often asked to have her husband's schedule reduced, to no avail.
"But everywhere you go you see the heart of the American people, and that is so affirming for what we do and why we do it," said Romney, who raised five sons, now grown. "I wouldn't trade this. You give up a lot. But you get so much back."