The Running Mates

updated 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

To people in Burlington, Vt., Howard and Judy Dean are just the folks next door. Their split-level ranch on the edge of town is nondescript, featuring Brady Bunch decor (green shag carpeting, Beatles and Grateful Dead records stacked by the hi-fi) and a rusted Chevy Blazer parked in the drive. Busy with a thriving medical practice, Judy, 50, manages to get to PTA meetings but barely has time to cook a meal for the family, which includes son Paul, 18, a high school senior, and Anne, 19, who is at Yale. Howard, 55, meanwhile, also a doctor by training, takes Yankee thrift to such extremes that he still wears a polyester JC Penney suit he bought 16 years ago and an ancient purple ski jacket that has faded to something closer to orange. This is a man who has clearly never watched Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. "I've heard of it," he admits, "but it's on cable." Needless to say, the Deans don't do cable.

If Howard Brush Dean III has his way, next year he and Judy will be moving out of their humble house and into slightly more grandiose digs: the White House. Since declaring his candidacy for President in June, Dean, who served as Vermont's governor for nearly 12 years, has gone from virtual unknown to front-runner in the race among nine candidates to win the Democratic party's nomination. Buoyed by an endorsement from former Vice President Al Gore and an army of energetic young volunteers, he's built a S40 million war chest in time for the first crucial battles of the election season—the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary. "Howard Dean is an incredibly shrewd politician to get from where he was to where he is now," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at Washington's independent Brookings Institution. "He was strongly against the war in Iraq to distinguish himself from the others in his party, and the most forceful and vitriolic opponent of President George W. Bush."

One thing he does not have, however, is a traditional politician's wife. With the exception of an appearance on the day he declared his candidacy in Burlington last summer, neither Judy nor the couple's children has ever joined Howard on the stump. As first lady of Vermont, Judy maintained her own practice and attended only two of her husband's four inaugural parties. She's seldom seen at Dean campaign headquarters—raising fears among some supporters that her refusal to stand by her man will rankle traditional voters. "Whether she likes it or not, the President's wife has a role to play," says Bonnie Angelo, author of First Mothers, a history of First Ladies. "There's a sense that something is missing with her not being out there."

Until now the Deans have done little to combat that impression by refusing to be interviewed as a couple. But in an exclusive conversation with PEOPLE at their home Jan. 8, both Deans agree that the time has come to talk more about their life together. "The people of the country have a right to know about Judy, because she's been a huge influence on me," says Howard. A quiet woman, Judith Steinberg Dean (she uses her maiden name in her practice) says she doesn't fear a more public role. "I wouldn't choose to be a political person," she says. "But I believe that Howard would do a great job as President. I figure I'll deal with whatever comes up." Not that she hasn't made some effort already. Judy says she recently baked chocolate-chip cookies for her husband's staff. "One of my very few contributions," she says. "They're not fussy about what they eat."

Jokes aside, Judy Dean makes it clear she still won't shift priorities, even if her husband wins the Presidency. "I will continue to do medicine in some way," she says when asked how she would spend her time in Washington. "I like it. And I'm good at it." When asked whether she's prepared to preside over a state dinner, she replies candidly, "I haven't really thought about it, but I think I could probably do it. With a little help." Does she consider herself a member of her husband's kitchen cabinet? "I don't really give advice," she says, although her husband disagrees. "The best advice she gave me was that I looked like an idiot on television," he says. Then, correcting himself, he says, "She wouldn't say it that way. She'd say, 'You didn't do very well on television.' "

Mild mannered and serious though she may be, Judy Dean, friends say, is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to giving an unsparing clinical diagnosis to her husband, a man who even loved ones admit can be hard-headed. The son of Howard Dean Jr., a conservative Republican stockbroker known in the family as "Big Howard," and Andrée Maitland Dean, an art appraiser, Dean and his three younger brothers grew up in the privileged precincts of Park Avenue and East Hampton, N.Y. Entering Yale in 1967—President Bush's senior year there—Dean was a typical left-leaning student of his time who nevertheless decided to follow his father to Wall Street after graduation.

Though a back injury would keep him from being drafted, the Vietnam War changed the course of Howard's life. While traveling in Laos in 1974, his 24-year-old younger brother Charlie, a peace activist, was killed by communist guerrillas; the State Department later told the Deans he had been beheaded. "It was devastating to our family," says Jim Dean, 49, who works for his brother's campaign. "It spurred Howard to think about what he was doing with his life and do something more meaningful." During the '80s Howard briefly went into therapy to deal with his grief, and he still wears his deceased brother's leather-and-brass belt every day. (Charlie's remains were found buried in a Laotian bomb crater and returned to the family only last year.)

After entering Albert Einstein Medical College in the Bronx in 1974, Howard met Judith Steinberg, the Princeton-educated daughter of two physicians from Roslyn, Long Island. "I was sitting next to a friend of mine, and I just said, 'That girl's adorable,' " he recalls. Later he approached her in the library. "Everybody was in torn jeans and sneakers and knapsacks, and Howie wore khaki pants or corduroys with a buttoned-down shirt and a briefcase," says Judy, who agreed to a dinner date. He cooked spaghetti for her at his parents' apartment.

Howard moved to Vermont in 1978 and Judy followed a year later; they set up a joint practice and were wed in a civil ceremony in 1981. For a time, both volunteered at Planned Parenthood but didn't perform abortions. "I don't have a moral problem [with the procedure]," Howard says. "But neither of us are trained to do abortions." Howard was soon involved in politics, first as a state representative, then in the part-time job of lieutenant governor, and after the sudden death of Gov. Richard Snelling in 1991, as the state's top official. "I started hyperventilating," he says of hearing of Snelling's death. "To suddenly have responsibility for 600,000 people, it provokes a little anxiety." He served 11½ years, during which Judy was the main breadwinner. "I would do the day-to-day stuff," she recalls, "and Howard would take the kids on adventures," like sailing and hiking trips. For her 50th birthday last year, Howard, ever frugal, gave Judy a flowering shrub. "Being practical, I wanted something to plant in the back lawn," he explains.

Despite the expectations of others, the Deans don't expect their simple life to change much, whatever happens in this spring's primaries. "It's something he has to do, and I am going to go along with him," says Judy. Which is just fine with her husband. "She works for a living," says Howard Dean with a smile. "Somebody has to make an honest living."

JD Heyman. Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Anne Driscoll in Burlington and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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