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Whitehouse's 'secret weapon'? His wife, Sandra

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --When Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse won his campaign for U.S. Senate against well-liked incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee, some credited a deep dissatisfaction with Chafee's Republican party with the win.

But others close to the campaign, including Whitehouse himself, say the person who clinched the race was his wife, Sandra, who spent more than a year-and-a-half on the campaign trail with her husband, standing in for him at events or being a sounding board along the campaign trail.

The senator-elect calls her his best surrogate and best fundraiser.

Sandra Whitehouse was "the one person who did more than anybody else, probably including the candidate, to make all this happen," Sheldon Whitehouse told a crowd of supporters this month during a thank you party in Providence.

"I'm not sure that Sheldon could have won without her, quite frankly," said Mark Weiner, the Whitehouse campaign's finance chairman and a longtime friend of the couple.

He describes her as a fabulous mother to the couple's two children: Molly, a senior in high school, and Alexander, a seventh-grader, and also "scary smart."

"She has tremendous political instincts," Weiner said.

Whitehouse, 47, describes herself as a second set of eyes and ears during the campaign, and she and others said the couple worked in partnership. She helped prepare her husband for debates and often accompanied him to the appearances, along with his campaign manager and spokeswoman. She also gave him advice -- often unsolicited (he's an occasional nail-biter, and she encouraged him to stop it.)

"You're under a lot of stress, obviously, during the campaign," she said during an interview this month. "It's good to have someone who you can say anything, ask anything, share your innermost feelings with. That was, I think, valuable for Sheldon."

Weiner said Sandra was a key asset to her husband during the campaign, when the candidate is constantly required to make decisions on the spur of the moment.

"One of the things that Sandra did for Sheldon, she really and truly gave him the stability to focus on a lot of that kind of stuff," Weiner said.

Sandra Whitehouse became one of her husband's most effective fundraisers. Her husband said she was the one of the pair who could easily make the difficult call to ask for one more $1,000 donation from an already-generous donor -- and get a pledge for the money.

The Whitehouse campaign was largely based around dozens of "community dinners" around the state, during which voters could get a free meal (meatballs and pasta in the colder months, hamburgers and hot dogs in the summer), and the candidate would deliver his stump speech. As people waited in line for the meals, the couple would shake hands and chat.

It was a change from Whitehouse's previous political campaigns -- when he successfully ran for attorney general in 1998, and four years ago in his unsuccessful bid for governor. The dinners worked.

"People really got to know Sandra and they liked her," Weiner said. "She was like a secret weapon, because everywhere she would go, people would really warm up to her."

For many voters, she became the face of the campaign.

"I think women in general are really good listeners, and sometimes people felt more comfortable communicating with me, the non-candidate and a woman," Sandra Whitehouse said.

In the 2002 gubernatorial race, Whitehouse failed to make it through the Democratic primary. This time around, Sandra Whitehouse said she pledged to be more involved in the campaign.

"That was a very painful and difficult experience that I never wanted to relive," she said. "I really wanted to make sure that I gave it everything I had."

She said the loss forced her husband to think about what he wanted to do with his life, and Weiner said losing humbled him.

"It forced him and Sandra to really take a look at themselves and really get involved with the community and people," Weiner said.

Whitehouse joined a private law firm after the loss, but Sandra Whitehouse said her husband realized after a few years of soul searching that public service was his passion.

Sandra Whitehouse's family has lived in Newport for five generations -- a distant uncle, George P. Wetmore, was Republican governor from 1885 to 1887 and later served several terms in the U.S. Senate.

Sandra Whitehouse grew up on Long Island and spent summers in Newport. She, her mother, her fraternal twin sister, Elena, and younger sister, Nina, moved to Newport year-round when she was 14, after her parents divorced.

Whitehouse, then known as Sandra Thornton, met her future husband in Newport in 1983, introduced by her twin sister, who roomed with Whitehouse's cousin at Brown University.

When they met, Sandra lived in Virginia, so Whitehouse came down a few weeks later and took her to dinner. They began dating.

At the time, she was studying for a master's degree at the College of William & Mary and would often have to go out on tiny boats to take samples. Even on the coldest, most unpleasant winter days, Whitehouse would join her on daylong sampling trips.

"He stuck with me and helped me," she said. "That was really one of the first times I realized that maybe he was a keeper."

They married in 1986.

Whitehouse received her Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of Rhode Island in 1994, and has used her background in science as the past chair of the state Coastal Resources Management Council, an independent state regulatory agency, as well as on numerous boards of nonprofit groups.

She returned to her job this month as an independent consultant for the General Assembly on environmental issues, and said that until Alexander gets through middle school, the family plans to stay in Rhode Island while Sen.-elect Whitehouse commutes to Washington.

Weiner said he hopes Mrs. Whitehouse continues to play a role in her husband's work life once he's sworn in Jan. 4.

"I think she'll probably be a tremendous asset to him," he said. "Hopefully, she'll get involved in a lot of issues too."

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