LONG BEACH, Calif. — Jeri Thompson said yesterday she is "terrified" of making a gaffe that would damage the presidential bid of her husband, Fred.
"I'm afraid of embarrassing Fred," she said of the Tennessee Republican, comparing the "bone-crushing pressure" of a campaign to "walking down the street with no clothes on."
"I would be terrified of hurting him; it would break my heart," Mrs. Thompson said, prompting Elizabeth Edwards to lean across the couch and reassure her: "Nobody pays that much attention to us."
It would have been an intimate girl-to-girl moment if it hadn't happened on a stage with California's first lady, Maria Shriver in front of 14,000 women attending her annual Women's Conference.
During an unprecedented "conversation," five wives of presidential hopefuls shared their worries about the stresses of the campaign, including a family-versus-politics balance. And they agreed no press is good press.
"If it ended up on the front page of [the Internet] Drudge [Report], I didn't say it right," said Mrs. Edwards, who has earned her share of headlines as her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, makes his second presidential bid.
"Please, don't make me make the front page today," Ann Romney chimed in, and Michelle Obama quickly agreed: "I look at the clips, and think it's great when I'm not in there."
The hourlong discussion, which ended in an exchange of hugs, also was noteworthy for a word the women didn't utter: "Hillary."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, got only a subtle nod when Mrs. Shriver asked about former President Bill Clinton.
She paraphrased a historian who said people wouldn't understand the first lady's role until a man holds the job. It brought laughter, but the ladies erupted in protest because that would only happen if Mrs. Clinton wins in 2008.
"I don't agree," Mrs. Obama said first, and the others followed.
Mrs. Obama said she and her husband, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have struggled with a balance as they raise their young daughters in the midst of a White House run.
"You have to be a good father in addition to being a good president," she said, adding later it has been a "privilege" to be reminded of the core decency of Americans and teach that to her girls.
When Mrs. Shriver asked the women if the country votes for the couple, Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said: "They do look at both of you very carefully and your families."
Mrs. Romney, wife of Republican Mitt Romney, seemed to enjoy the campaign more than the other women, several times praising the process and saying it is inspiring to see so much of America, and smiling when she said the spouses play the unique role of letting people know "another side of our husbands."
Mrs. McCain said a first lady has a "duty" to encourage people to be a part of their government, and "to bring young people along and make them want to be part of the process instead of hating the process and looking at it in disgust."