WASHINGTON -- The presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton has unleashed something new upon the political landscape: the wives.
More than any previous presidential campaign, the candidates' wives -- especially on the Democratic side -- are stepping forward, speaking out and strutting their own stuff.
Outspokenness is suddenly a virtue.
Hillary is, in fact, running not only against front-runners Barack Obama and John Edwards, but against their equally powerful and ambitious wives.
Ironically, the trend of first lady as co-contender began with Hillary when husband Bill introduced a twofer presidency. Elect me and you get my smart wife, too, he told voters. That worked out well.
Thanks to the debacle of Hillary's attempted health care plan, the likelihood of her ever becoming the first woman president seemed nil to impossible. In yet another irony, it was her husband's betrayal that saved Hillary from obscurity.
Public sympathy -- as well as Hillary's dignified public response to humiliation -- trumped her lousy record as a policymaker and, voila, she was the junior senator from New York. Now she's nearly the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
The shift in perception of Hillary as aggressive presidential wife to self-deprecating presidential candidate has caused a shift in the estrogen ecosphere. With a woman leading the race, the other females have ramped up their own roles and rhetoric.
Republican wives are less out-front than their Democratic contemporaries, in part because Republicans tend toward more traditional roles, but also because those who have been outspoken have been slapped down. The once-talkative and confident Judith Giuliani has begun confining her commentary lately to golf, following a few hard knocks in the media ring and a particularly bruising Vanity Fair profile.
Other front-runner wives -- Ann Romney, Cindy McCain and Jeri Thompson -- tend to participate more quietly or behind the scenes.
Because of Hillary, however, the Democrats are another story. Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards both have taken their places front and center as they challenge the other candidates and defend their own husbands. Like Hillary, they're both lawyers who are unaccustomed to letting the men do all the talking.
When Ann Coulter attacked John Edwards, for instance, Elizabeth Edwards called the columnist live on "Hardball" and "politely" asked her to stop. And in a deft move that both objectified and minimized her husband's opponents, Mrs. Edwards said: "We can't make John black. We can't make him a woman. Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars."
Mrs. Edwards has become bad cop to her husband's good cop, in other words. She carries the family aggression for him so that he can remain the laid-back, deeply caring guy. While he opposes same-sex marriage, she stars at the kickoff event at San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade and declares her full support.
What Elizabeth Edwards is doing for her husband, we all do to some degree in our marriages. And though we're all entitled to our own opinions, those opinions have consequences in politics. First wives -- or first husbands, as the case may be -- don't get to serve as first mates during pillow talk and then pretend their voices are irrelevant as policies take shape.
Michelle Obama has taken a slightly different tack. She carries the family values, making sure voters know she's at home each night to tuck in the couple's two girls. As opposed to Elizabeth Edwards, perhaps, whose young children are on the road with their parents?
While Barack Obama stays above the fray, drawing adoring crowds and focusing on issues, his wife fleshes out his human dimension. He's not the "next messiah, who's going to fix it all," she told USA Today.
Sensibly noting that a man deified is a man people will try to take down, Michelle might have skipped telling Glamour magazine that Obama is "snore-y and stinky" in the mornings. There's a significant amount of wiggle room between deification and halitosis.
Whether voters want their first ladies to be full presidential partners rather than silent sidekicks remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Hillary is learning that becoming the first woman president of the United States requires not only defeating the men.
She has to beat their wives, too.