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Teresa Heinz Kerry: The Lioness

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Even in a poll held before that incident -- conducted last month in 19 battleground states by Washington-area firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates -- Mrs. Heinz Kerry won a favourable rating from only 40 per cent of respondents, while 30 per cent saw her unfavourably.

Mrs. Bush, in stark contrast, had a favourable rating of 62 per cent and a mere 14 per cent unfavourable.

She was popular even among Democratic supporters, while 60 per cent of Republican voters had a negative opinion of Mrs. Heinz Kerry.

With her dark beauty, languid manner and lilting accent, Mrs. Heinz Kerry appears more like an aging European screen star than an American political wife on the hustings. She is clearly not a typical politician's spouse, despite being married to a politician for much of her adult life.

Christened Marie Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira, she grew up in colonial Mozambique, the favoured daughter of a Portuguese doctor who supported African independence. She was schooled at top universities in South Africa and Switzerland.

In 1966, she married H. John Heinz III, whom she met on a tennis court in Switzerland and who was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the United States, the Heinz ketchup millions.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, he served as a congressman and then a senator from Pennsylvania and she raised their three boys. After his death in an airplane crash in 1991, she took over the family's charit-able foundation, gaining widespread recognition for her diligent, inspired work.

She married Mr. Kerry, who was divorced, in 1995. But she remained a Republican until 2002, when, she says, she became disgusted with the party's vicious attacks against war veterans such as former Georgia senator Max Cleland.

Now, she is auditioning for one of the leading roles in American political theatre. Like British royalty, the first lady is expected to be an exemplar of style and mores, but also a modern woman of substance who must champion her own causes.

Mrs. Heinz Kerry has insisted that, as first lady, she would continue her work as head of the Heinz Endowments. Supporters compare her to Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt, two controversial first ladies who pursued their own social and political agendas while in the White House and attracted the venom of conservatives.

Early in the 2004 campaign, Mrs. Heinz Kerry suggested that she was too old and had too much life experience to be restrained by political handlers. At the Democratic convention in Boston in July, she told delegates that she "profoundly cherished" her right to have her own voice.

But political strategists have good reasons for packaging candidates and their spouses: It works. Selling a politician has been likened to marketing soap, and unscripted comments can cause trouble. While few Americans vote based on their view of the first lady, she can reinforce or detract from the image of the candidate that the campaign is trying to convey.

Certainly, Mrs. Heinz Kerry has endured blistering criticism from conservative pundits and Internet gossips. Her Latin earthiness is criticized as "imperious sexuality," and her sharp tongue called tactless and opinionated.

Her wealth, which is estimated at $750-million (U.S.), is invoked to suggest that she is out of touch with women who struggle to raise a family and hold down a job.

Even among Democrats, critics suggest that Mrs. Heinz Kerry is so keen to fight her own battles that she has lost sight of the greater project, one that seems increasingly out of reach: to defeat George Bush and elect her husband president of the United States.

But supporters say she is just being genuine, and that's what Americans deserve from politicians and their spouses.

After her speech in Pueblo, Mrs. Heinz Kerry defended herself against those who say she is too outspoken.

"It's not opinionated, it's judgment based on knowledge," she told reporters. "No man who does my work and runs what I run would be called opinionated -- he'd be called smart or well-informed. That's all I ask for women."

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