Lunch with the first ladies

Who wins? Homely Laura Bush with her recipe for oatmeal cookies? Or jet-setting Teresa Heinz Kerry who likes to add a little spice? Andrew Buncombe watched the candidates' consorts in action this week as they each tried to win over a crucial audience of influential female voters
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The Independent US

In the ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Washington, lunch has just finished and waiters in black-and-white uniforms are busily clearing the closely set tables as the delegates at a conference for Jewish women await the day's guest speaker. Soon, each and every one of them is on her feet, applauding, with various degrees of enthusiasm, Laura Bush, the First Lady of the United States.

Mrs Bush is perfectly groomed in a fitted, pink skirt suit, her hair neat and stylish, her smile fixed and splendid. She is delighted to be here, she says, to speak to these powerful women who do so much for various causes throughout America. She smiles some more, tells a deprecating joke about her husband that raises a decent swell of laughter, and then launches seamlessly into her carefully weighted speech. "To be here with so many smart, savvy, powerful women... You have to wonder what the guys are doing without us right now," she says.

When she finishes, she receives not one but two standing ovations, the Jewish philanthro- pists from the Lions of Judah organisation rising to their well-heeled feet, sitting down, and then rising again as she leaves the stage.

Mrs Bush may be her husband's most potent weapon. While his personal approval rating hovers at about the 50 per cent mark, hers soars somewhere above 70 points. Even here, among a group of women who will for the most part vote for John Kerry, many comment that if Mrs Bush were running for the presidency she would get their vote. Indeed, at the conference the previous day, the applause for that afternoon's guest speaker was enthusiastic but noticeably not so loud - and that speaker was Teresa Heinz Kerry, the other candidate running in that sometimes parallel campaign for first lady.

In so many ways, the differences between Mrs Bush, 57, and Mrs Heinz Kerry, 66, are striking. At its most simplistic, as it is portrayed by the US media, Mrs Bush is a first lady of the traditional variety: she is straightforward, reserved and - most importantly - very much secondary to her husband. While she is now a full-time first lady, when she worked she had decent, wholesome jobs as a teacher and a librarian. She is from Texas and she first met her husband when they were in high school. When Family Circle magazine asked - as is traditional during the campaign season - for the First Lady to provide a recipe, she opted for oatmeal-and-chocolate-chip cookies. She is always appropriate. There is nothing threatening about Mrs Bush.

In contrast, Mrs Heinz Kerry is not in the least straightforward. Born in Mozambique, fluent in five languages and a multi-millionairess following the death of her first husband, the ketchup magnate Senator John Heinz, Mrs Heinz Kerry is complicated, compelling, exotic, prone to the occasional verbal slip and is very much someone who speaks her mind and is used to getting her own way. Her recipe was for pumpkin spice cookies.

What's more, she often appears at best lukewarm about her husband's decision to run for the White House, and certainly about becoming first lady. When she addressed this conference on Sunday afternoon, she said she believed herself and Mrs Bush were a "tiny island of women in a world that revolved around male activities". She added: "Of course I don't mind. I believe deeply in John and in what he is fighting for - to bring hope and opportunity to all Americans. It's an honour to stand with him in this campaign and I know Laura Bush feels very much the same way about her husband. None the less, it is certainly nice to be here with a group of women who want to talk about something other than politics for a while."

Polls show that if the election were a straight-up popularity contest between these two women, the Republicans would win hands down. Unlike Mrs Bush, Mrs Heinz Kerry's approval rating is no higher than 35 per cent. "Obviously, Laura Bush would win in a landslide," confirms Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and director of the UVA's Center for Politics. "The American people have been very slow to fall for Mrs Kerry. Perhaps that is unfair and because they don't know who she is. Of course, if John Kerry were elected, her image might improve - it's amazing what the PR managers can do - but that is not going to happen before 2 November."

As Professor Sabato is quick to point out, for the overwhelming majority of voters the identity of the first lady is not an important issue when they come to select who they will vote for - they are, after all, voting for a president. But supporters of each of the two women, Mrs Bush and Mrs Heinz Kerry, say that, aside from the simplistic portrayal of their different backgrounds, there are genuine contrasts between them that reflect inherently different views of the world, and that represent two very different choices for America.

Consider, for instance, the opinions of Linda Abrams, a retired, 60-year-old conference delegate from New Jersey, who voted for George Bush in 2000 and who will be voting for him again in 10 days' time. "I was very impressed with Laura Bush," she says, having listened to both of the women's speeches. "I liked the way she spoke, the way she presented herself. She knew her audience." Mrs Abrams, however, is not impressed with the wife of the Democratic challenger. "She was not very presidential. I thought she was unpolished."

These are the sorts of criticisms that Mrs Heinz Kerry has had to endure ever since her husband first announced his intention to run for the White House - and even more so since he secured the Democratic nomination. Critics have been quick to seize on her sometimes awkward manner, her lack of political experience, her habit of snapping at journalists, her repeated refusal to stick to the script.

There is some truth in these allegations. Despite her marriage to John Heinz, who died in a plane crash in 1991, and her marriage since to the Massachusetts Senator, Mrs Heinz Kerry does sometimes appear to be unworldly about politics and how quick enemies will be to attack. Her comment to an audience of black voters that she, too, was an "African-American" may have been technically correct, but for a woman who travels by her own private jet and who donates $70m annually in grants from an endowment set up in her first husband's name, it seemed somewhat naive.

Likewise, when Mrs Heinz Kerry referred to opponents of her husband's healthcare plan as "idiots", told a television anchor that some of her critics were "scumbags" and advised a reporter from an unfriendly Pittsburgh newspaper to "shove it", her comments not only grated on many voters, but were seized upon and twisted by her political enemies.

Mrs Heinz Kerry counters all of this by saying that, if she were a man, people would say admiring things about her being resolute and determined, but that because she is a woman her behaviour is somehow seen as inappropriate. Even on Sunday, having quoted Margaret Thatcher's remarks that if you want anything said, ask a man, but if you want anything done, ask a woman, she joked: "I can hear the pundits already. 'There she goes again, being outspoken. This time she's criticising men.' You may have noticed that I get that a lot. All I can say is: 'Lighten up, fellas. It's a joke.'"

Of course, to some people, the very fact that she is strong-willed, independent and sometimes fiery is something to admire. Mrs Heinz Kerry has even made it clear that, if her husband wins the election, she does not intend to suspend her own career as a philanthropist. Robin Polishook, a 49-year-old delegate from Boston who is married with two children, sees these as qualities to embrace, not to criticise.

"What I liked about Teresa Heinz Kerry was how she talked about our interconnectedness, everything is everything," Mrs Polishook enthuses. Of Mrs Heinz Kerry's detractors, particularly those from the American heartlands, she says: "I think that many of those people are very Republican and very conservative. I think they might be intimidated. She, to me, looked like a first lady. There is no doubt about it."

For now, it is Mrs Bush who holds that job and she is doing all she can to keep it. Her speech at the Hilton hotel, where Ronald Reagan was shot and almost killed in 1981, was decidedly political - a reflection of the fact that, with the battle for the White House so close, every potential vote is important. Even among a Jewish group, 80 per cent of whom voted for Al Gore in 2000, it is worth making the effort to persuade influential people to vote her husband's way.

As a result, whereas Mrs Heinz Kerry talked about the Jewish belief in tikkun olam - the notion that the world must be healed - Mrs Bush talked about what she considered the success of her husband's first term in office. "The people of Afghanistan showed the world that democracy can flourish anywhere when people are given the chance to be free," she said, in a reference to the elections held there recently.

And, while Mrs Heinz Kerry spent much of her speech talking about her philosophy of philanthropy, Mrs Bush made a political point about the invasion of Iraq - albeit in a message carefully targeted to her audience. "We'll continue to help the women of Iraq in securing their rights and rebuild- ing their country. The presence of a democratic, stable Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a powerful beacon for freedom, an example of hope in that vital region. Our work is part of a broader effort to support women across the Middle East. We know that, without women, the goals of democracy and peace cannot be achieved."

In case anyone missed it, the sweetly smiling, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-the-mouth librarian from Crawford, Texas, who helped her husband quit drinking and stood by him - or at least a little behind him - as he ran first for governor and then for president, hammered home her point to the delegates. "Freedom is also at the heart of the President's approach to bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. My husband is strongly committed to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state."

As a recent profile of Mrs Heinz Kerry in The New Yorker noted, the job of first lady is a complicated affair. Many Americans - the majority, if the polls are to be believed - prefer their first ladies to be reserved and deferential, more in the style of Barbara Bush than Hillary Clinton. They can accept weaknesses, but only if those weaknesses are considered somehow to be feminine traits: Jackie Kennedy's extrava- gance, Betty Ford's depression, Nancy Reagan's faith in astrologers.

They can handle strong and resolute women - as long as their strength and resolve is performed in support of their husband's work and, ideally, if it is dressed up and softened by a smile and a cookie recipe. But can the bulk of Americans handle a woman who speaks different lang-uages, who talks with a foreign accent, who wasn't born in America, for God's sake, and who has plenty of her own opinions but who, frankly, finds all of this political to-and-froing quite ridiculous?