In outspoken Heinz Kerry, hope for a campaign spark

Spirit: Strategists expect her to enliven her husband's staid candidacy and bolster his standing among women and swing voters.

Election 2004 -- The Democratic Convention

July 27, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - Teresa Heinz Kerry, clad in elegant black and crisp white, is sauntering down a rope-line of enraptured supporters at the Massachusetts State House, smiling and signing autographs as aides try to hustle her off to her next event.

Guests whisper admiringly about her accent ("exotic"), her remarks ("smart and down-to-earth") and her shoes ("killer") as they crowd in for handshakes and pictures.

But minutes after she finishes charming the voters Sunday evening, Heinz Kerry confronts a member of the press with the bitter phrase that will make big news the next day, the opening day of the convention her husband has so carefully scripted: "Shove it."

Heinz Kerry, 65, perhaps more than anybody else here this week to launch John Kerry into the general election campaign, is positioned to give life and warmth to the Democratic presidential candidate's image as he seeks to project a spirited and likable - as well as strong and capable - face to voters. But her outspokenness has sometimes proved a distraction to her husband's campaign, as was the case Sunday evening when she lost her temper in front of news cameras at a conservative journalist whom she accused of mischaracterizing remarks she had just made to a group of convention delegates. It was not the first time that Heinz Kerry had landed herself in the news for straying from the campaign script by sounding off when she felt the urge.

Tonight, during a prime-time speech before the convention, she has a chance to inject some verve into Kerry's less-than-charismatic candidacy, showing voters that a Kerry White House would include a smart, saucy first lady. Strategists hope she can turn her contrarian streak to Kerry's advantage, bolstering his standing among women and swing voters, especially in her home state of Pennsylvania.

Heinz Kerry's convention speech won't be carried on the broadcast networks, but it will likely be viewed by millions of cable watchers. And she will appear in taped appearances this morning on all the major networks, as well as CNN.

"It's sort of like a national rollout. You're putting her on the national stage, and as much as people have read about her or seen her on TV for the last couple of months, they don't really know her," said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey's Rider University who has studied first ladies.

On the political stage, where hairs are rarely out of place and words are meticulously chosen, Heinz Kerry's unruly coif and breathless stream of consciousness speaking style are something of a curiosity.

In place of the seemingly perpetual smiles that candidates and their spouses usually wear, she sometimes appears with a furrowed brow and a solemn expression. And while other political couples tend to limit their on-stage adoration to holding hands and gazing proudly at their candidate-spouse, Heinz Kerry frequently clings to her husband during joint appearances, leaning her head against his chest and often receiving a kiss on the head from him.

Heinz Kerry talks to voters at giant fund-raisers and rallies as she might gossip with friends. Taking the microphone at a rally this month in Raleigh, N.C., with Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, she called the two men "Johnnies B. Goode," a reference to the song the campaign often plays at joint appearances.

"And they will be good if Elizabeth [Edwards] and I have anything to do with them," she said. "We will keep them honest, and that's the most important thing in a relationship."

At a fund-raiser last month in Washington, she darted from the subject of marching against apartheid to her thoughts about children's place in the world: "If you do well by children as a society, you do well by society - that's the way it works."

Minutes later, she was telling her 2,500-person audience how important she thinks it is to "really talk from the heart, and to talk from the head and from the spirit, because it takes being vulnerable to really woo people's hearts and minds - you can't be didactic."

Friends say the freewheeling philosophy Heinz Kerry dispenses on the campaign trail - along with her sisterly tone - helps her draw in her audience, whether it be a living room full of confidantes or a town square filled with thousands of people.

"With her it's like there's not an introduction and an end. You start in the middle, [and] she pulls you in immediately," said Wren Wirth, a close friend and the wife of former Colorado Sen. Timothy E. Wirth.

"What you see is what you get," said friend Laurada Byers. "There's no pretense. "

The life Heinz Kerry leads has hardly been ordinary.

She was born Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes Ferreira in Mozambique to Portuguese expatriate parents, and often refers to herself as a "daughter of Africa." But she has spent more of her life in the United States, where she moved in 1966 to marry John H. Heinz III, the heir to his family's ketchup fortune. He was elected to the Senate as a Republican five years later.

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