Republicans Cindy McCain, Jeri Thompson and Ann Romney joined Democrats Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards at the California Women's Conference, an annual gathering in Long Beach hosted by Maria Shriver, the state's first lady. Shriver, a former television news anchor, moderated the panel.
Political differences scarcely were mentioned during the hourlong discussion as they described how they keep up a grueling schedule of campaign appearances while trying to preserve time with their children and protect their husbands from overzealous handlers.
They held hands and exchanged hugs as the panel concluded.
All said they had little input on policy matters. And they largely rejected the notion made famous by Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign when he described his partnership with his wife,, as "Buy one, get one free."
Hillary Clinton, now the Democratic front-runner and only woman in the presidential contest, was never mentioned. Her husband, the former president, did not attend the spouses' panel, but Shriver joked that she had invited him to serve coffee. Also absent was Republican Rudy Giuliani's wife, Judith.
Thompson, a former Republican party strategist and wife of GOP contender, dismissed widely reported accounts of her heavy involvement in his campaign.
"I have a 1-year-old ... I also have a 4-year-old. That's my main role," Thompson said. "Other than that, I do what I can to help. But I'm not even qualified enough to do any of the other stuff."
Obama, a lawyer and vice president of the University of Chicago hospital system, said she often discusses policy issues with her husband, Democrat. But she said he ultimately keeps his own counsel on such matters.
"In the end, I go to my job and I make decisions on my job and those are my decisions. He goes to his job and makes the decisions on his job. And I would like to think that he had the good sense to understand that usually I am correct," she said to laughs and applause.
Edwards and McCain were the panel's campaign veterans, having been at their husbands' side in previous presidential efforts. Republicanlost George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries, while lost the Democratic nomination to John Kerry in 2004 before becoming Kerry's running mate.
McCain, for her part, marveled at the "absolute wonder and beauty" of the campaign experience and how much it had helped her relationship with her husband.
"It's just the two of us," McCain said. "We're close friends, we are our worst critics and our best friends. He advises me on everything, I advise him on everything ... You need a friend, a booster, and he is definitely there."
Edwards, who has incurable breast cancer, was asked what dreams she had been forced to put on hold for the campaign.
She described how she had looked forward to walking with her husband through the woods near their North Carolina home once the campaign was over. Her illness had caused her to rethink those plans, she said.
"John didn't take it away from me. Fate took it away from me," she said.
Romney, the wife of GOP hopeful, said the life of a campaign spouse is simply a magnified version of what many women struggle with each day. She acknowledged Edwards' breast cancer and noted that she suffers from multiple sclerosis.
"At some point, our bodies, as women, finally say 'Uncle,"' Romney said. I truly believe because we are juggling so many balls all the time, and trying to keep it together, we forget to take care of ourselves."