10/27/2011 04:56 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Spotlight beginning to shine on spouses of Republican presidential candidates

WASHINGTON - They're the spouses behind the candidates, and one of them could be the next first lady _ or the first man? _ of the United States of America.

The wives, and a solitary husband, of the Republican presidential candidates run the gamut from shy and elusive to outspoken and highly visible. Some, like Gloria Cain, steer well clear of the spotlight while others, like Ann Romney and Mary Kaye Huntsman, play a major, hands-on role in their husband's campaigns.

Do spouses matter? One of the candidates certainly believes so.

"When you look at someone to determine whether they'd be the right person for public office, look at who they lay down with at night and what they believe," said Rick Santorum at a recent campaign event as he called his wife, the relatively low-profile Karen Garver Santorum, to join him on stage.

Experts agree.

"The spouse can be huge," Catherine Allgor, the author of a biography on popular first lady Dolley Madison, said in an interview Thursday.

"They can be symbols of their spouse's campaign, sending out psychological signals about their true character," said Allgor, a history professor at the University of California Riverside. "When someone goes into the voting booth, how they feel about a person's character, and whether they believe that politician is a good person, is often very much shaped by the spouse."

Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey's Rider University who studies first ladies, agrees.

"Spouses figure into a voter's evaluation of character," she said.

"People do look at families, and they say to themselves: 'Huh. They seem like they have a good marriage; he seems like a solid guy.' And that can really influence what they think about a candidate."

Indeed, the photogenic wives of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, in particular, are considered boons to their husbands' efforts to win the nomination. Ann Romney, in particular, with her many campaign-trail portrayals of her husband as a loving and supportive family man, serves to humanize a candidate many feel lacks a human touch.

Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, on the other hand, haven't been so lucky.

Callista Gingrich's love of buying trinkets at Tiffany's hasn't done her husband much good, and his alleged acquiesence to her desire for a Greek vacation early in his campaign supposedly spurred a mass defection of strategists.

Marcus Bachmann has been the subject of intense media scrutiny, and ridicule, for his controversial Christian counselling business that allegedly offers to "cure" gay patients. In an upcoming interview with People magazine, he sought to soften some of his previous anti-gay comments.

"There's never been a bias" against gays, Marcus Bachmann tells the magazine. "I'm no better than anyone else."

And Anita Perry, the previously low-profile wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, spouted off recently about her husband's struggles on the campaign trail, complaining bitterly about his treatment by the media and the Republican party.

"We have been brutalized and beaten up and chewed up in the press," she said in remarks that made headlines throughout the United States. "We are being brutalized by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is, I think ... because of his faith."

And still other spouses, like Cain and Carol Paul, have raised eyebrows simply by their absences.

Where is Gloria Cain? In his new book, Herman Cain speaks glowingly of his enduring love of his wife of 42 years, and her southern cooking, but it's a question the sudden frontrunner is facing with more frequency.

"She prefers to maintain the calmness and tranquility of our family life," Cain said in a recent statement.

Texas congressman Ron Paul's wife, Carol, isn't much for campaigning either. She shows up only occasionally on the campaign trail, but she's publicly praised her husband in years past.

"We have friends all over the state of Texas as well as friends throughout the United States who believe in limited government," she wrote in 2007. "That in itself is a testimony to a great and humble man."

But Gutin says absent spouses can cause as much trouble for a candidate as those who court controversy, as Michelle Obama did in 2008 with a series of controversial remarks that are a distant memory now that she's a popular, and relatively benign, first lady.

Gutin points to 2004, when Democrat Howard Dean's wife was rarely seen on the campaign trail.

"There was a mini-brouhaha when Judith Steinberg Dean was not seen for the longest time. People thought: 'Well where is she? Does this mean she's not supportive? Is there trouble in the marriage?'" Gutin recalls.

"Historically, it's been more negative than positive if the spouse is absent because voters really do want to see the spouse and see that he or she is endorsing a candidate's efforts."

It's something Cain himself seems to realize while at the same time revealing an apparent respect for his wife's legendary shyness. When pressed about when Americans might catch a glimpse of Gloria Cain, he replied: "They will see her — on her terms and her timetable."