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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

It Seems Everybody Has an Opinion About Her

August 01, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Teresa Heinz Kerry is a political wife unlike any this country has seen. But can she affect an election? Some think it's possible.

An heiress to immense wealth after being widowed by a Republican senator from Pennsylvania and now married to another senator -- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- the 65-year-old Heinz Kerry is a philanthropist who is foreign-born and unafraid to speak her mind. And as this year's fight for the White House enters its final months, she increasingly evokes curiosity and interest.

Heinz Kerry's nationally televised speech at the Democratic National Convention was among the most anticipated moments of the four-day event. "My name is Teresa Heinz Kerry," she began. "And by now, I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say."

Indeed, that notion has become a minor theme of the Kerry campaign. He made brief note of her outspokenness in his nomination acceptance speech Thursday. And on Saturday, in Greensburg, Pa., Kerry told a cheering crowd, "Teresa, she speaks her mind, and she speaks the truth, and we love her for that."

For President Bush and his campaign, however, such references to Heinz Kerry may be welcome news.

Republicans long have viewed First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian with a low-key manner, as a political asset to the president. And throughout his term, Bush routinely has invoked her name in political speeches. On Saturday in Pittsburgh, he said: "Today you'll hear some reasons why I think you need to put me back into office. But perhaps the most important reason of all is so that Laura will be first lady for four more years."

The self-deprecatory line almost always draws a chuckle from Bush's crowds. But it may now resonate even more, given the differences between Laura Bush and Heinz Kerry -- differences GOP strategists think could work to the president's advantage.

Bush campaign advisor Mary Matalin said of Heinz Kerry: "One thing is irrefutable -- she is a distraction. She's one of those polarizing people."

But Democratic pollster Celina Lake predicts Heinz Kerry will prove an asset to her husband's White House hopes, especially among single women.

Lake, who has polled on the issue, said single women responded favorably to "strong, independent" women, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "I think Teresa will be wildly popular with them," Lake said. "I think she could have an impact on increasing turnout."

Most voters, of course, decide who to support based on their attitudes toward the presidential contenders, not their families. Still, for some, such attitudes can be influenced by reactions to those near and dear to a candidate.

Both campaigns "are trying to find a way to spin this first lady thing to their advantage," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said, but he considered such efforts a stretch in terms of their effect on the election.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that Heinz Kerry's unfavorable rating, 26%, was more than double that for Laura Bush -- 12%. Nearly half, 47%, had no opinion about Heinz Kerry.

It is too soon for polling data to accurately measure reaction to Heinz Kerry following the Democratic convention. Based on anecdotal evidence, however, women seem to have responded more enthusiastically to her than men.

"She seems very bright," said Sally Williams, 29, who lives in suburban Chicago and plans to vote for Kerry. "My brother and husband thought she was kind of a know-it-all. Ah, men."

That divide, if widespread, could prove a double-edged sword for the Democrats. As pollster Lake's comments indicate, party activists think larger turnout by unmarried women could significantly benefit Kerry. In the 2000 election, more than 21 million single women -- almost half of those eligible -- did not vote.

But the Democratic ticket also is hoping to run better among white males than did party nominee Al Gore four years ago. Among this group of voters, polls showed Bush bettered Gore by 24 percentage points.

Heinz Kerry's message as a campaigner -- though sometimes rambling -- is usually tailored to women.

On Friday, she told a crowd of about 15,000 in Pennsylvania: "It is long past due that the voices of women be heard. In full and at last. The women, the grandmothers, the great-grandmothers, the mothers and wives, they are the caregivers, the caretakers of this planet. Listen to them."

One undecided voter who has been paying close attention to the campaign is Doris Blankinship, a 47-year-old AT&T customer representative from Orlando, Fla. A registered Republican who voted for Bush in 2000, she enjoyed Heinz Kerry's speech on Tuesday and said that the candidate's wife might affect her vote.

Blankinship was impressed by Heinz Kerry's references to being an immigrant. "She wants our country to be strong, she wants our country to do well."

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