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Voting for a New Britain: Labour's First Lady hides her endearing charm from voters

WENDY ALEXANDER is a woman in a hurry. She has three campaign visits, two newspaper interviews and a photocall at the local printers to fit in before dashing to Perth for a TV encounter with Kirsty Wark. She seems more than up to the job, though.

The candidate tipped to be finance minister of the Scottish Parliament - and even First Minister after Donald Dewar throws in the trowel of office - gusts into her Paisley North campaign office in full throttle. Mary Miller, her election manager and an old friend from Glasgow University, has already confessed to buying her a car set for her mobile phone so she can keep talking at 300 words a minute even while driving. Almost before the Keir Hardy pin-up on the wall has stopped fluttering in her breeze she is apologising for her trousers, which are a marginally different colour from her jacket. Fishing a needle and thread from her bag she explains that she has been overtaken by a hem crisis. Sadly, the voting public will see few of Wendy Alexander's more endearing qualities unless they meet her in person.

Three days earlier at Labour's morning press conference she appeared with her brother Douglas, Scottish election campaign manager, former adviser to Gordon Brown and Westminster MP for Paisley South. Both were immaculate in navy, with pristine white collars, and both performed as if they had just completed a crash course at the Millbank Tower School of Careful But Firm Enunciation. In person she is infinitely more charming, despite a reputation for a fearsome intellect and a somewhat brusque manner. The latter she attributes to a determination to turn Scots into legislators; the former she seems to fail to recognise. Ms Miller says when her friend launches into a verbal screed on macro-economic policy she really thinks everyone follows her drift.

The only time a touch of the Millbanks creeps in is when she is asked about her relationship with her brother - some newspapers have suggested it is competitive. "We are a family. We are not a dynasty. We get on very well," she said.

Brusque or no, this diminutive 35-year-old possesses a terrifying CV. The daughter of a Church of Scotland minister and a haematologist, she joined Lab-our at 15, clocked up a degree from Glasgow, a master's from Warwick, slipped in six months' research for the MP George Galloway and ran an economic development magazine for a year before going to work for Donald Dewar, then Labour's Scottish spokesman, at 25.

Then, in 1992, "I thought we were going to be so awfully equipped for government that I needed to learn to be a civil servant so I applied to do management at Harvard", she said. "We lost the election so appallingly and I felt I didn't want to spend my time being an academic. So I deferred it and went to Insead in Paris." Between 1994 and 1997 she worked for the American consultants Booz, Allen, Hamilton where her boss had helped to get Bill Clinton elected. Then on 2 May 1997, Donald Dewar called to say she had already missed her first meeting as his special adviser. After 18 months making plans for the new Parliament she resigned to stand in the area where she went to school.

But Wendy Alexander is still not at all sure she will make a politician. She says she can see herself packing it in for something else, perhaps running a small voluntary organisation. "I'm deeply ambivalent about it ... I've worked behind the scenes for 20 years and I've seen the toll politics takes on people," she said.