Candidates' wives brave icy cold to stand by their men

Teresa Heinz Kerry, a Portugese multimillionaire raised in Africa and educated in Switzerland, found herself a star attraction on Sunday evening in an unusual venue - on a makeshift stage alongside union members at a fire-station in rural New Hampshire. Such are the perils of being a candidate's wife in the first presidential primary.

In these final days of campaigning, spouses have become vital props to their husbands, not only sharing the stress of an election which might make or break their political careers but also showing the candidate's human side. If the race for the White House is on, so is the race for the unelected post of First Lady.

After being all but invisible for the past 18 months, Judith Steinberg Dean has briefly abandoned her GP's practice to join husband Howard as he seeks to put his recent troubles behind him. If he is elected president, promises the former governor of Vermont, "Judy's going to continue to work as a doctor". Whether the Secret Service would permit such a thing is quite another matter.

Right now she is playing a vital role, offering assurance that Mr Dean is not the out-of-control maniac he seemed in that celebrated post-vote appearance in Iowa. Polls suggest the Judy treatment may be starting to work.

Elizabeth Edwards is more used to the rough and tumble, having campaigned for husband John back in North Carolina. But at one weekend rally here she found herself addressing an overflow crowd who could not get into the room where Mr Edwards, the featured attraction, was speaking. "It's the first time I've had to do this, but it's terrific fun," she said gallantly.

Most intriguing of the wives is Mrs Kerry, the widow of the Republican senator John Heinz and inheritor of his $550m (£300m) grocery fortune, whose outspoken habits made so many headlines that the Kerry campaign assigned a special handler to make sure she did not put her foot in it.

On Sunday night, she stood out like a duchess in a doss-house, with dark glasses worn Jackie Kennedy-style, on the top of her hair. Nobly she pretended to be following a stump speech she must have heard a thousand times but she is unlikely ever to match Laura Bush as the adoring political wife with the frozen smile. Mr Kerry introduced her as "a remarkable woman... who'll make an outstanding First Lady". He might have added, a fascinating one as well.

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