NEW YORK — Ann Romney is a smiling presence at her husband's side. Gloria Cain doesn't campaign at all. And Anita Perry raised eyebrows with her claim that her husband had been "brutalized" for his faith.
The wives — and one husband — of the 2012 presidential contenders are still learning to manage the unforgiving scrutiny that comes with their role. A spouse can be a priceless asset, validating and humanizing the candidate in voters' eyes. But an absent spouse can raise questions, and a provocative comment from a spouse can wound the candidate or pull him or her off message at a critical juncture.
That's what happened to Texas Gov. Rick Perry after his wife spoke to voters at North Greenville University in South Carolina a day before Perry was to unveil his energy policy. Intense and weepy at times, Anita Perry said her husband had come under withering assault in part because of his evangelical Christian faith.
"It's been a rough month," she said in remarks recorded by NBC News. "We have been brutalized and beaten up and chewed up in the press. We are being brutalized by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is, I think they look at him — because of his faith."
Rick Perry defended his wife when pressed on whether he agreed with her assertion. But it was unquestionably a distraction for Perry, who had tried to restore his focus on the economy after a month of bad debate performances and slipping poll numbers.
"We look at the spouse to give us some clue as to the character of the candidate," said Myra Gutin, a Rider University communications professor who studies first ladies. "He or she has to be circumspect, to avoid controversy as much as possible. But it's very hard for spouses to watch their significant other go through a hard time, so they sometimes speak out about it."
Emotional outbursts have bedeviled many candidates' spouses over the years.
Former President Bill Clinton's finger-wagging bursts of anger drew plenty of attention when he campaigned for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama. And Obama's wife, Michelle, came under withering criticism that year when she told a campaign audience, "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country."
The outcry over Michelle Obama's comment led to an emergency retooling of her image. As first lady, she's become a popular figure by focusing on relatively safe issues like childhood obesity, military families and harvesting a garden on the White House lawn.
Among the GOP candidates' spouses, Ann Romney, wife of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, has so far managed to avoid any noticeable missteps in part because she's been through a presidential campaign before. She's said she feels more relaxed than she did during her husband's 2008 race, and she projects confidence when she introduces him at campaign events.
"If they don't pick Mitt, that's their stupid mistake, not mine," she often says to laughs.
Ann Romney is often credited with softening the former Massachusetts governor's stiff image, describing him as a devoted father and husband who has stood by her during treatment for multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.
Mary Kaye Huntsman, wife of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, has been a near constant presence in New Hampshire, where her husband has focused his entire campaign effort. She's become a regular at local restaurants around the state capital, Concord, even when cameras aren't rolling.
She approached a group of reporters at an event last week, saying "people are crying out for" her husband's candidacy even though he's languished in low single digits in most polls.
"He'd rather lose than be inauthentic," she said.
While Ann Romney and Mary Kaye Huntsman have been ubiquitous on the trail, Gloria Cain, wife of pizza magnate Herman Cain, has been nearly invisible. With recent polls showing him surging into a virtual tie with Romney, Cain has faced questions about his wife's absence.
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