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Inside Politics

A family affair

Candidates' relatives reflect on the spotlight

Elizabeth Edwards takes her two youngest children with her on the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Edwards takes her two youngest children with her on the campaign trail.

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(CNN) -- A presidential candidate makes few moves the world does not see. Cameras catch virtually every speech, every gesture, every triumph and every misstep, and hold them up under the bright light of public scrutiny.

That's why Gertrude Clark, wife of Democratic presidential contender Gen. Wesley Clark, says she had reservations at first about her husband's decision to run for president.

"Who would want to put their life under such a spotlight?" she says. "And for me, as a wife and mother, you want to protect your family."

Indeed, the road to the White House can be bumpy, with candidates trying to woo voters by criticizing their opponents and late-night comedians pulling material straight from the campaign trail. During the past several months, insults have flown over privileged upbringings and congressional failures. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's post-caucus scream was being replayed long after he left Iowa.

Thick skins

Vanessa Kerry, a Harvard medical student and daughter of Sen. John Kerry, says people told her to thicken her skin before she joined her father's campaign.

"You have to learn not to take it personally," she says. She says she used to try to avoid criticism of her father by taking a break from reading the papers but eventually gave up.

"What are you going to do?" she says. "At least I know the truth. And I think in knowing the truth, you just wake up every day and you are that much more willing to fight back."

Rebecca Lieberman, the 35-year-old daughter of Sen. Joe Lieberman, lives by the same policy. When asked whether she pays attention when people insult her father, she laughed it off: "Has anybody been saying anything bad about my dad?"

Potential first ladies

Campaigns can be particularly wearing on candidate's wives, who sometimes bear the brunt of criticism themselves. Potential first ladies face a barrage of questions about their fitness for the job -- Is she a good mother? Likeable? What about her haircut?

In past elections, potential first ladies have undertaken a variety of efforts to win favor with voters. Former first lady Hillary Clinton famously softened her image during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, styling her hair and donning fashionable new suits in what some called an effort to appeal to suburban voters.

Elizabeth Edwards, for one, says she will not be changing her image or her personality to help her husband, Sen. John Edwards, secure the Democratic nomination.

Judith Steinberg Dean says she would give up her Vermont medical practice if her husband became president.
Judith Steinberg Dean says she would give up her Vermont medical practice if her husband became president.

"I think every candidate and every candidate's spouse all have to be exactly who they are," she says. "If you try to pretend you're something else, be something else, you're going to be uncomfortable with that, and voters are going to sense it."

But some changes are inevitable.

Judith Steinberg Dean, married to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, practices medicine in Burlington, Vermont. She says if her husband were to be elected president, she would give up her practice and move to Washington with him, but not without reservations.

"I enjoy my practice. I'm a good doctor. My patients like me ... It would be very hard to give them up," she says. "But there's not a lot of things more important than being president. So of course, I'd have to give them up for that."

At least one potential first lady has so far managed to stay out of the limelight. Kathy Sharpton, a one-time backup singer for James Brown who is married to the Rev. Al Sharpton, has kept a decidedly lower profile than some of the other candidates' wives.

Likewise, the family of twice-divorced Dennis Kucinich, who is currently unmarried, has kept out of the fray.

Trail perks

Gertrude Clark has campaigned both with her husband and by herself all over the country.
Gertrude Clark has campaigned both with her husband and by herself all over the country.

Of course, having a candidate in the family brings certain benefits. Rebecca Lieberman says she has enjoyed the access she's had on the campaign trail to voters and their concerns.

"Going out there and hearing from people about what they're concerned about ... and being able to offer them solutions is really rewarding."

Equally rewarding, says Gertrude Clark, is a campaign's potential to make a difference. She and General Clark are new grandparents, and they both say the new family member inspired them to look beyond the pressures of public scrutiny.

She told CNN that when her family was mulling her husband's run for office, her son said, "I know this is going to be hard on all of us, but I need you, Dad. We need to change the world for our son."

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