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Teresa Heinz Kerry: The Lioness

The Globe and Mail, Oct. 2

Pueblo, Colo. — Teresa Heinz Kerry pushed an unruly curl off her face and settled it into her thick, chestnut mane. She prowled the stage like the lioness she claims to be -- purring to the attentive crowd, and flashing her eyes and famous temper at a hostile questioner.

For 90 minutes, the woman who would be first lady of the United States of America delivered a meandering talk that was part TV confessional, part wonkish lecture and part biting attack on President George W. Bush and his Republican administration.

Outspoken and often lacking in tact, Mrs. Heinz Kerry has become a target in the clash of civilizations waged between liberals and conservatives in America. While those on the left see her as a standard-bearer for the modern, successful woman, right-wing radio hosts and bloggers condemn her as a weird, out-of-touch radical liberal.

Even some progressives have attacked her for letting down their side -- feminist writer Naomi Wolf accused her of "emasculating" her husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, by keeping the name of her first husband, a Republican senator who died in a plane crash 13 years ago.

"Add to that fact that her first husband was (as she is herself now) vastly more wealthy than her second husband," Ms. Wolf wrote in New York magazine. "Throw into all of this her penchant for wearing black, a colour that no woman wears in the heartland, and you have a recipe for just what Kerry is struggling with now: charges of elitism, unstable family relationships and an unmanned candidate."

Scared off by such sentiments, the Kerry campaign has played down her role. She doesn't appear in campaign ads, as does the widely popular Laura Bush, who is frequently pictured behind her husband's shoulder or next to him, looking up at him adoringly.

(Mrs. Heinz Kerry will appear with her husband next week on Dr. Phil, the daytime talk show, where the Bushes appeared in an hour-long interview this week.)

However, she is still campaigning vigorously -- New Mexico and Colorado last week; Minnesota and Florida this week. And she can move a sympathetic crowd in her persona as a wise, older woman who has been moved to action by the callousness of the Bush administration.

On the stage of the 4-H Pavilion of the Colorado State Fair Grounds last Friday, Mrs. Heinz Kerry softly confided in the 350 strangers sitting on folding chairs before her. Before her husband embarked on his quest to be president, she had thought she would not be able to take the pace and ugliness of the modern political campaign, she told them.

But then, she thought about America's children, and the deepening social and economic problems she was encountering as head of the Heinz charitable foundation, she said. The mother lion in her decided she could not shrink from the battle.

"I didn't think I had the energy or the ability to withstand it," she said, clutching the microphone to her chest.

"On the other hand, I knew that all the issues that I worked on in my own life are in serious jeopardy. . . . And I felt that I had to go down fighting to protect my kids and my grandchildren and other people's too. And I will."

To the cheers of the partisan crowd, the 65-year-old grandmother added that she has gained wisdom and focus with age so she is not deterred by "the lies and the stupidity and the nonsense."

Her image of an embattled lioness is an apt one. Mainstream voters -- who have caught only glimpses of her -- aren't sure what to make of the foreign-born heiress who told a tendentious reporter to "shove it," and suggested children in the hurricane-battered Caribbean could "go naked" while relief efforts concentrate on food, water and electricity.

The remark had right-wing radio hosts and bloggers comparing her to Marie Antoinette saying "let them eat cake."

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