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Heinz Kerry seen as 'secret weapon'

There was a time when some people in John F. Kerry's campaign privately wondered whether his wife would be a help or a hindrance to his run for the presidency.

Further doubts echo today within the Republican Party, where wealthy socialite Teresa Heinz Kerry is cast as Kerry's sugar mama and derided along with him for the couple's international roots, and where her past talk of Botox injections is contrasted with Laura Bush's more homespun air.

Yet this day, after touring the Martha Elliot Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain and the Mattapan Community Health Center, Heinz Kerry adopts a version of her husband's signature "bring it on" line when told what critics say about her:

"Just let them," she says in a soft voice.

True, she is one of the richest women in America, wears suede Chanel boots, and speaks five languages. But she is also comfortable enough -- and has distinct professional interests she will continue to pursue if her husband makes it to the White House -- to move from her high station in life and commiserate with the young and old, black and white, rich and poor. On Tuesday, she praised added funding for a prescription drug program she helped launch in Massachusetts. That work, she said, defines her, not what the GOP says behind her back.

"When you raise your kids, you say, 'What you say is who you are,' " Heinz Kerry said in an interview, the kind of understated put-down for which she has become famous.

Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, calls the Massachusetts Democrat's wife the "unsung heroine" of the operation, noting in particular her groundwork in the New Hampshire primary while her husband made a go-for-broke gamble on victory in the Iowa caucuses. "She explains John Kerry really well to voters," Cahill said.

That assessment stands in stark contrast to the earlier, more-private concerns of some advisers.

When Kerry began running in earnest for president in June 2001, campaign aides worried that his wife's frankness and vast wealth would create political problems for him. The specific problem was her propensity to deliver frank statements that could cause the campaign to get "off-message."

Those concerns were exacerbated after an interview with The Washington Post in June 2002, in which she talked about competing with Kerry's daughters for time with her husband, as well as a May 2003 article in Elle magazine in which she discussed her Botox injections. Occasionally, she slips and refers to her first husband, the late Senator H. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania, as "my husband" and to her current spouse as "John Kerry."

After campaigning both with Kerry and on her own in Iowa and New Hampshire, and after standing by his side as he delivered one victory speech after another in the primaries, Heinz Kerry plans to stay on the campaign trail through the fall.

"Teresa Heinz Kerry," Senator Edward M. Kennedy roared Tuesday night as he introduced her at a Boston fund-raiser. "A woman of compassion, a woman of purpose, the secret weapon for John Kerry."

The next night, Kerry told the crowd at another fund-raiser in New York: "My wife talks a language that is so real. She looks people in the eye, she tells it like it is. She is not afraid of the truth and she loves this country that she has been a citizen of since she married and raised her children here, and she will make a great first lady of the United States of America."

Fluent in five languages, and a native speaker of Portuguese, Heinz Kerry is expected to be a help among the nation's growing population of Hispanic voters. The native of the African nation of Mozambique is envisioned by Kerry strategists as a beacon of hope to other immigrants. And with millions under her control as head of the Heinz Family Philanthropies, she offers her own resume and record when it comes to talking about issues near and dear to Democratic voters, such as the environment, health care, and education.

But during the past year, the 65-year-old Heinz Kerry has dramatically scaled back her outside work to focus on her husband's campaign. She hired a new communications director after the Post interview. Last year, the campaign added a spokeswoman to a traveling retinue that now also includes her longtime aide, Jeff Lewis, chief of staff of the Heinz Family Office in Washington.

The new assistance is helping coordinate her message with that of the Massachusetts senator. But it does not seem to have broken her free-speaking ways.

This week, after lauding state House Speaker Thomas Finneran and state Senate President Robert Travaglini for providing $14 million in additional funding for the Prescription Advantage program she helped institute in Massachusetts (it sells insurance to provide prescription drugs to everyone who is over 65 or people with disabilities who are eligible for Medicare), Heinz Kerry addressed a group of women at the Elliot health center, talking openly about being nursed and about nursing her three sons.

"That's what I try to do in campaigning: I try to connect the dots for people -- whatever their problems are -- and help them figure out where they are in that connection, and how they may look for help, where, or how they may help themselves," she told the Globe.

On the stump, Heinz Kerry often draws on her own story of coming to America as she projects a vision for the country she hopes her husband will lead. She recalls growing up in Africa, attending the University of Johannesburg, and thinking of America "as a place of idealism, of optimism, of can-do spirit, of generous spirit, of a happy face of the Peace Corps volunteer."

Heinz Kerry told an audience last week at a Chicago fund-raiser that campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early primary states rekindled that belief for her. "That instructs highly for me, and I'm sure it's not just amongst Democrats or Independents or Republicans," she told the crowd in a near whisper. "I think most Americans want to hope again. And I think that should be our lift, that should be how we soar, and that should be how we carry this campaign forward."

The shifting of the Kerry campaign into general-election mode brought Heinz Kerry her own Secret Service detail this week, and she said she shudders at the thought of her Beacon Hill town house being the center of the political universe in late July, when the Democratic National Convention comes to Boston. Growing crowds and the need to campaign across the continent, not just focus on one or two states, also leaves her uncertain of the nature of her future campaigning.

"This is the beginning of the second round, and so this is new for me. And I haven't quite figured out how much of the old, pre-this, I can continue to do, because I enjoy doing that, and how much more of the next is going to be more public, less intimate. I don't know that. I'm going to make it as intimate as I can, I promise," she said with a giggle.

Whether she becomes the next first lady on Nov. 2 or recedes back into private life, Heinz Kerry plans to continue her philanthropic work.

After her first husband's death in a 1991 collision between a helicopter and the small plane in which he was flying, she inherited both a personal fortune estimated at more than $500 million and oversight of the family's many charitable activities.

Today, she oversees three charitable organizations with combined assets of $1.3 billion and as many as 10 private trusts that may hold an additional half-billion dollars, according to a recent review by the Los Angeles Times of Internal Revenue Service nonprofit returns, Senate financial disclosures, and records at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

One of the foundations, the Pittsburgh-based Howard Heinz Endowment, had reported assets of $789 million in 2002.

Heinz Kerry also chairs the Heinz Family Philanthropies, which is not a formal organization but a group of activities run out of the Heinz Family Office, the Times reported. That group includes the Heinz Family Foundation, a registered tax-exempt private foundation with total assets of $62 million.

Some conservative groups protest about the business practices of the H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup empire her family no longer controls.

If she becomes first lady, some critics have said, her involvement with the foundations could present a problem. But Heinz Kerry says that continuing her philanthropy would enhance a Kerry presidency.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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