The Beat Goes on

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

MARY BONO REALIZES THE first page of her campaign kickoff speech is missing only when she is at the podium, facing an audience near her hometown of Palm Springs, Calif. She takes a deep breath, prays she can be heard over her pounding heart and wings it. When she finishes, people clap and cheer, and Bono smiles wistfully. Sonny, she thinks, would be proud. "His greatest tip," says Sonny Bono's 36-year-old widow, "was never to take yourself too seriously."

These days, Bono clings to Sonny-isms as she finds herself in the surrealistic swirl of running for her husband's congressional seat while still grieving his loss. She relies on emotional support from friends and family ("Have you won yet, Mommy?" her kids ask almost daily) and political advice from Washington's Republican elite, including Newt Gingrich, who valued Sonny as a colleague and a friend. But it was Sonny's constituents who inspired her to announce her candidacy on Jan. 22, just 17 days after her husband died in a skiing accident during a family vacation at South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

"The people in this community have helped me through the past month in a way that you wouldn't believe," says Bono, Sonny's fourth wife and mother of his youngest children, Chesare, 9, and Chianna, 7. "They held our hands through so much that it just seems natural to want to serve them."

Bono has only a few weeks until an April 7 special election to convince voters that she should be the one to complete Sonny's mission. She is one of four Republicans and two Democrats vying for Sonny's seat, including actor Ralph Waite, TV veteran of The Waltons. Democrat Waite, 69, now playing Willy Loman in a New Jersey staging of Death of a Salesman, is campaigning largely in absentia. Though he is saddened by Sonny's death, Waite believes he is the better candidate. "This is much too important to let sympathy be the basis of sending someone to Washington," he says.

For her part, Bono is honoring a historic tradition, joining more than 30 widows since the 1920s to run for a husband's congressional seat while coping with his death. Bono, a Republican, supports school vouchers and charter schools and vows to save the Salton Sea, a polluted lake near Palm Springs. In part, Bono's politics reflect the conservative views she heard at home from her father, Clay Whitaker, 73, a retired surgeon at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center, and her mother, Karen, a chemist turned homemaker. Bono, who grew up in Pasadena and was a standout gymnast for a decade ("I hated competing, but I loved performing"), was the youngest of four children—Stephen, 43, is a geologist, David, 40, an engineer and Katherine, 38, a homemaker. She met her future husband in 1984 when she and a friend went to Sonny's restaurant in L.A. to celebrate her art history degree from USC. Kim Waltrip recalls her friend Sonny saying he was crazy about one of his customers. She worried he was falling in love with "one of those little actress types." But, she says, "when I met her, she was fresh from USC, no socks, no makeup, and I was, like, 'Right on, Sonny.' "

They married two years later. She helped transform his struggling bistro into a moneymaker, collected royalty payments from his music, ran their new eatery in Palm Springs, cared for their children, earned a brown belt in karate and became a personal trainer as well as a computer whiz. "I was the nuts-and-bolts person in the relationship," Bono says. "In our 12 years of marriage, I think Sonny wrote two checks and made one bank deposit."

Bono also became a consummate political wife ("I started voting when Sonny did; the only difference was that I was in my 20s and he was in his 50s"). She attended functions in Palm Springs and Washington and kept current with the help of four daily newspapers and a host of news and public affairs programs. Lately, Bono is fielding interview requests from the producers of those very shows and explaining how she's just a regular Jane "who learned a lot more about life from art history than I would have from political science."

While Ingrid, her Saint Bernard, snores by her side, Bono, sitting in the six-bedroom Mediterranean-style home she recently put up for sale for $1.5 million ("downsizing," she says), admits that she had never considered a political career previously. But she's sure she has precisely what it takes to be an effective congresswoman. "One thing I knew I didn't want to do is tell people how to live their lives," says Bono. "Because of that, I'm the perfect person to run for federal office."

JOHNNY DODD in Palm Springs and MARGERY SELLINGER in Washington

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