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Senator John F. Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, last week.
Senator John F. Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, last week. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

Speaking her mind

One of the ironies about Teresa Heinz Kerry, who can be so sassy and sharp-tongued in conversation, is that the moment she picks up a microphone at campaign rallies, her voice drops to a whisper as she says "Hello, Iowa" or "Hello, New Hampshire," and her pitch rarely recovers. As the wife of John F. Kerry prepared for her national coming-out tonight in a speech to the Democratic National Convention, a senior adviser said Heinz Kerry has been rehearsing with one goal in mind: "Project, project, project!"

"I'm too old to embarrass easily," she said about her own style on the hustings. "I'm shy. I'm basically very shy."

Not that Heinz Kerry has trouble expressing herself. The 65-year-old daughter of a Mozambique doctor, who inherited $500 million as a widow but said recently she would give it up to have her first husband alive, has become an object of fascination for voters and the media -- and a target of George W. Bush's reelection campaign -- for saying out loud what many others would keep discreet.

Last Monday night on Nantucket, Heinz Kerry told reporters that she was coping with all of her preconvention work by planning to "drink it away" at dinner; on Sunday, in a moment that quietly delighted some on Kerry's press staff, she told an antagonistic newspaperman to "shove it" when he challenged her statement that some "un-American traits" were sullying national politics.

Kerry has sometimes blanched at such comments from his wife. But now, as a presumptive Democratic nominee who felt torn up by the media for much of last year when he struggled in the polls, Kerry empathizes with her spirited response. He calls her "my secret weapon" and, in front of some minority audiences, "my favorite immigrant." Asked about her "shove it" remark yesterday, Kerry smiled and said, "I think my wife speaks her mind appropriately."

Sizing up "T," as Kerry calls his wife of nine years, has become a favorite parlor game of the political season. Is she a boon or a bust for Kerry's White House bid? Is she a little bit kooky, a little bit eccentric, or just a woman who decided that her time on earth was too short to fake it and not speak her mind? What kind of marriage do the Kerrys have. And if she would like her first husband back, what would that mean for her current one? And will she stick to her script tonight, or surprise the audience at the FleetCenter?

Perceptions of Heinz Kerry may well stand unchallenged because this highly cautious, controlled campaign rarely provides details about the Kerrys' interior lives and has given up trying to leash Heinz Kerry to a tight, on-message script.

"She's her own woman, and she's not programmed, and she just says what she thinks," said Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, at a convention breakfast at the Colonnade Hotel yesterday. Asked about controlling Heinz Kerry's message, Cahill added: "There are those things you can do, and there are those things you can't do."

But based on a series of interviews with Heinz Kerry over the last year and observing her on the campaign trail and with voters, a few conclusions are clear: Her childhood growing up in an African dictatorship, where her father didn't get to vote until he was 71, gave her a keen appreciation for the 16-hour daily slogs through the early primary states to make Kerry's case before voters.

As she began campaigning last year, she said the other day, she was "not afraid of making mistakes, but not very sure of myself," and she credited the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire voters with toughening her up. She sticks up for herself, as the "shove it" comment reflected, and has said she might spend part of her personal fortune against the Bush camp if she felt they were coming after her.

On the personal side, she and Kerry are quite physical with each other off camera, touching hands or intertwining legs, and each likes to slip an arm around the other. She loves telling stories about her three sons from her marriage to the late US senator John Heinz III -- John IV, Andre, and Chris, all in their 30s -- yet she rarely mentions Kerry's two adult daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa. At a Sioux City rally with the daughters and Kerry on Saturday, Heinz Kerry lamented the restrictions facing doctors worldwide, a perfect moment to offer an anecdote about her step-daughter, Vanessa, who is a Harvard Medical School student with a deep interest in global health issues. Vanessa's name did not come up.

"There is a great deal of mutual respect among the three women, but I wouldn't say that a strong mother-daughter bond exists, like the father-son bonds that have developed between Senator Kerry and Teresa's sons," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Heinz Kerry is well aware that a reputation precedes her. She and her campaign have recently taken steps to reshape it, assuming a more aggessive stance in the process.

Late last month she hired a new communications adviser, Marla Romash, a longtime adviser to Al Gore. Since then the former Republican -- Heinz Kerry switched parties after the 2002 elections, feeling the GOP had turned ideologically right wing -- has become aggressively partisan in attacking President Bush. She has told Democrats that she is being attacked by the GOP quietly but harshly, blaming Republicans, for instance, for stirring up an outcry for her to release her own income tax returns. (She has so far chosen not to, concerned that some of her sons' finances would be inadvertently publicized.)

Her critique of America's role in the world under Bush has also turned more pointed. For months she simply longed for the return of smiling Peace Corps volunteers as the symbol of the US overseas; at the Sioux City rally Saturday, however, she argued that the Bush administration's war policies should inspire the same kind of protest marches that she joined in against the apartheid government of South Africa in the late 1950s, when she attended the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg

"There's a lot we know isn't going right, but I think probably the most insidious and probably even the most debilitating of all of it, is the lack of dignity and respect, the amount of cynicism and untruths, perpetrated on the American people," Heinz Kerry said at the rally. "That is not American."

Whether Heinz Kerry is too exotic for heartland voters is a concern for some Democrats and campaign officials. Robert Watson, a Florida Atlantic University professor who is a specialist on presidential spouses and politics, said Heinz Kerry would benefit from a tighter script: She tends to ramble when speaking without notes, and she is not particularly artful -- unlike Vanessa Kerry, for instance -- at looping her speeches and anecdotes back to Kerry's candidacy.

"First ladies are most effective when they're defending and sticking up for their husbands, so I would have her tell her marvelous life story and connect it to John Kerry's values and strengths," Watson said. "On her own she's too exotic, too foreign for a lot of swing voters."

"I think it'll be a mixed bag for Teresa through the election," Watson said. "People know how they feel about Laura Bush. Laura is in many ways the anti-Hillary Clinton. The country had Hillary fatigue,and the heartland wasn't ready for a first lady who kept her maiden name. If Laura was the anti-Hillary, Teresa is the anti-Laura. She's outspoken, gets into controversies, but the country doesn't know her yet. What Americans hear from Teresa on Tuesday night will go a long way toward defining her as a possible first lady."

Patrick Healy can be reached at 

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