THE 2008 ELECTION [1 star]

If "trophy wife" means perfect hair, a fresh manicure, a spotless home and afternoons with the ladies-who-lunch set, credit Jeri Thompson with 0 for 4. It's lunchtime on a Wednesday and Thompson, 41, the wife of GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, is in sweatpants—her hair caught up in a ponytail, her fingernails ragged from stripping wallpaper. Her Asscher-cut diamond engagement ring is soaking in a bowl somewhere to cleanse it of diaper rash cream "slime," she says.

But trophy wife—and worse—is among the labels that have attached to this suburban Washington, D.C., mom since her considerably older, more famous husband—Fred Thompson is 65, a star of TV's Law & Order and a former U.S. senator from Tennessee—made clear his intention earlier this year to run for the White House. MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, a fellow Republican, suggested Jeri Thompson looked like a stripper when he mused on-air, "You think she works the pole?" Then The New York Times piled on by asking, "Is America ready for a President with a trophy wife?"

Jeri Thompson is undeniably youthful and attractive, but does she deserve this? In her first interview, the candidate's wife told PEOPLE she alternately shrugs off the name-calling—and bristles. "It's hard not to be defensive," says Thompson, her velvety voice sharpening somewhat. "To think back on how hard you've worked, and all anybody thinks about is that you're a trophy wife."

In Thompson's defense, she boasts a résumé respectable by any standards. From a middle-class upbringing in Naperville, Ill.—with stints on the high school drill team, in the church choir and as a waitress to pay her tuition to DePauw University—she worked her way into the public relations business in Nashville and eventually into a coveted job in the GOP press office in Washington. "I almost think they had to fabricate that trophy-wife stuff," she says, "because there's nothing interesting to say."

Unless you count falling in love with an actor known to millions from his work on TV and movies like The Hunt for Red October. Jeri says she was at a Nashville supermarket checkout stand on July 4, 1996, when she spotted Fred, then a U.S. senator, standing in line with a can of beanie weenies and half a premade tuna fish sandwich. "I looked at him and just said, 'I'm so sorry,'" she recalls with a laugh. Divorced with three grown kids, Fred carried her groceries to her car, and she invited him to a friend's party that night.

Single, but still reeling from the painful breakup of a 10-year romance, Jeri stayed in touch with Fred. "I was never an older-man-dater kind of girl before," she says. Sparks flew only later when the couple had lunch in Washington, where Jeri had moved in 1998. Jeri says she was entranced by Fred's passion for his subject that afternoon, a campaign finance investigation; he caught her attention with a single phrase. "He said, I want to 'lift the curtain' so people understand," she recalls. Clifford May, who hired her as a media strategist for the Republican National Committee, says he took a chance on the D.C. newcomer because she was "bright and energetic;" she was also, by then, a close friend of a Republican senator.

When it comes to politics, says Thompson, she and her right-of-center husband are a perfect match. "I believe in less government, lower taxes and have a strong libertarian streak," she says. Does that streak mean she and Fred ever disagree on his declared opposition to abortion and gay marriage? "No," she says. "Actually, Fred will tell people I'm more conservative than he is."

By the time the couple married in June 2002, Fred had decided to retire from the Senate to settle into lobbying and do more acting. It was a period of peace (downtime meant watching Mystery! on PBS), prosperity (they moved into a $3 million house in the suburbs) and fertility (their daughter Hayden was born in 2003, and Sammy followed last October). When Fred and his supporters first started talking about mounting a presidential campaign at the beginning of this year, "I felt so sick. I was depressed," she says. Knowing that politics is often a snake pit, Thompson says, "I didn't want to throw my husband to the snakes." But Fred's age played a factor in convincing her. "He was sitting at that kitchen table saying, 'When I leave Hayden and Sammy, will I have given everything that I can give?' I decided not to be so selfish."

These days, Fred Thompson jokingly introduces his wife as his campaign manager. "She always looks out for my best interests," he told National Review, responding to flak that Jeri had taken too strong a hand in his campaign. She has made calls to recruit campaign workers and acts as a surrogate for the candidate when aides seek out his views. On the home front, Jeri has relieved Fred ("a lot more hands-on [dad] than people thought he would be," she says) from diaper changing and late-night feedings while he's campaigning. "The rule is, when he's on camera, I'm on duty here," she says.

And if her husband clinches the Presidency? "It blows my mind that people think I would want a Cabinet post," says Thompson. In fact, she wonders—as she glances down at the ladybug quilt spread out for Hayden's picnic lunch on the floor of a living room decorated in Horchow Collection meets Fisher-Price—just how much time she'll have to devote to traditional First Lady causes. "It would be different with me," she says. "I can't forfeit my responsibilities for some of the ones some women might take on as First Lady. I would still have my children as my first priority."