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Teresa Heinz Kerry: The Lioness

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Betty Houchin Winfield, a University of Missouri professor who specializes in political communication and has written on first ladies, suggests that Mrs. Heinz Kerry is a formidable woman who makes some people -- men, in particular, but not only men -- nervous.

"What is irritating for some people is that she is comfortable about who she is," Ms. Houchin Winfield says.

"Let's face it, she is comfortable about her age, about how she looks, about her background and she oozes this Old World, classy female who ages very well, who is wise and who doesn't like putting up with a lot of guff."

At the Pueblo event, women in the audience said Mrs. Heinz Kerry's candour -- far from being a liability -- is her strongest asset.

Jenny Dingman, a Pueblo resident who runs a support group for victims of medical errors, was a lifelong Republican until she heard Mrs. Heinz Kerry speak about her views on abortion.

Mrs. Heinz Kerry has talked about how she faced the possibility of an abortion during a troubled pregnancy but ended up losing the baby naturally. A devout Catholic who wears a small gold crucifix, she says she personally opposes abortion but supports choice as well as education to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Ms. Dingman said she was impressed by her honesty and her complicated response to a complicated issue. "Laura Bush is a beautiful lady and is very gracious, but she is not as strong," she said. "I think in order to be in a leadership position, you need that. The greatest first ladies we ever had were very strong women."

Certainly, far from out-of-touch, Mrs. Heinz Kerry was both engaging and provocative in Pueblo.

She told her listeners that they should reject politicians who offer solutions in "short little sentences that mean nothing or can mean everything." Instead, she undertook to "connect the dots" among problems involving the economy, health care and education. She spoke for an hour without notes before taking questions.

While she frequently referred to Mr. Kerry's policies, the views expressed were clearly her own, backed up by a ream of statistics and anecdotes involving her sister-in-law, her son's girlfriend and her niece.

Like her husband, she can be overly enamoured of buzzwords and acronyms, a byproduct of her work with social policy advocates. But even when she strayed onto difficult terrain in Pueblo -- bringing up the dangers of estrogenic impacts on a question about the links between health and environment -- her audience stayed attentive.

Heads in the crowd nodded as she described the increasing pressures on middle-class families and retirees from rising health-care costs, higher university tuitions and a tougher job market.

"All of a sudden, I see this population -- and I don't like to call them middle-class or any class, I call them people who managed their lives and were lucky to do so -- all of sudden, I see them not being able to manage," she said. "And these people are startled because they've never not been managing and they're not sure know how to slide by or somehow survive."

She also displayed her feisty side, to the delight of the partisan crowd, taking on a young man who questioned why her husband voted both for and against funding for the war in Iraq.

She explained that Mr. Kerry supported the initial funding bill but balked when the administration demanded an additional $20-billion without detailing how it would be spent.

Unfazed, the questioner began to doubt Mr. Kerry's ability to lead a country at war. Mrs. Heinz Kerry cut him off: "If you want to say he flip-flopped, say so," she snapped. "Don't pretend."

As the crowd booed the flustered man out of the room, Mrs. Heinz Kerry started chanting: "Six more week, six more weeks."

It's now down to less than five weeks before Americans choose between her husband's vision of their country and a more conservative one. Mrs. Heinz Kerry will campaign down to the wire, promising to win or to "go down fighting."

Shawn McCarthy is a member of The Globe and Mail's New York bureau.

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