Primary Asset

updated 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Deep in the frozen landscape of New Hampshire, the wife of presidential hopeful John Kerry orders an emergency campaign stop. "I need gloves," explains Teresa Heinz Kerry. "I'm freezing." After 17 days of nonstop campaigning for the nation's first primary election, a woman with a wardrobe full of Ralph Lauren pops into a roadside store, plunks down $20 for wool mittens, then heads next door to a clothing shop and indulges in a rare moment of fun. "Look at this," she says, trying on a feathered hat that would have made Minnie Pearl blush. "Maybe I should wear this to a debate!"

An aide has a better idea. "You could wear it to the Inaugural," she says.

The hat part was a joke. The Inaugural? No one is laughing anymore, not after John Kerry, 60, the junior senator from Massachusetts, scored a victory in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, thereby cementing his position as the Democratic front-runner one week after his upset victory over former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses. Nor is anyone taking Kerry's wife, Theresa, 65, lightly. Once regarded as a loose cannon for her candid comments on everything from male fidelity to her own beauty regime, she is now being hailed as a valued, if unconventional, asset. "Teresa basically forced undecided voters to take a look at John Kerry," says Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile of Heinz Kerry, who has energetically lobbied union workers in Spanish and Canadian-American voters in French. "She doesn't give up."

Heinz Kerry, the multimillionaire, multilingual daughter of a Portuguese doctor raised in Mozambique, doesn't fit the stereotype of a candidate's dutiful wife. She has spoken frankly about receiving botox injections "once in a while," as well as about the prenuptial agreement that she made Kerry sign before their 1995 marriage to protect the $550 million fortune she inherited from her late husband, John Heinz III, a Republican senator and heir to the Heinz food fortune, who died in a 1991 plane crash. She has also flashed a steely wit: In an interview in Elle magazine last June, Heinz Kerry recalled how she jokingly warned her former husband never to cheat on her: "I'll maim you," she told him. "Not kill you, just maim you." She regrets the comment: "I learned not to tell jokes after that."

But behind the scenes on a recent day of campaigning in the Granite State, with her husband teetering on the brink of a serious cold, Heinz Kerry shifted easily into the role of protective spouse, chiding aides about the visibly gaunt senator's care and feeding. "One of them brought John this pasta thing with three shrimp. I said, 'Where's the protein here? He needs at least four ounces,' " she recalls. On the stump, the couple routinely end rallies with a passionate clinch and, in private, lover's quarrels can run equally hot, according to friends. "They fight," says Washington lawyer Jonathan Winer, a friend. "They're two strong-willed people who occasionally get irritated with each other."

Their obvious differences have only served to strengthen their bond, say other close pals. "Teresa's very volatile and outspoken," says Sally Quinn, the Washington journalist and socialite. "John is a total Yankee. She lightens him up." Born and raised by a doctor and his homemaker wife in southeast Africa, Teresa Simoes-Ferreira studied international relations in Switzerland and married John "Jack" Heinz, with whom she later had three sons, after moving to the U.S. in the '60s. In 1994, still devastated by her husband's death, she met friends for dinner at a Washington restaurant and struck up a conversation with Kerry, then an acquaintance, a divorced senator with two grown daughters.

After dinner, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet who became a peace activist after the war, suggested a moonlight walk to the nearby Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. "John didn't say much, but it was important to him," recalls Heinz Kerry. In time, romance bloomed. "There was a kind of boyish, lost quality to him," she says. "The guy didn't have a proper home. He almost didn't know what he could be."

The pair wed in 1995 at Heinz Kerry's home in Nantucket and soon melded their families—her three sons and his daughters. Kerry "was very graceful about entering that family," says a friend. "He didn't try to fill Jack Heinz's shoes. He brought his own." Should her husband one day win the Presidency, expect Heinz Kerry to do the same when she moves to the White House—and she's partial to Chanel pumps.

J.D. Heyman and Susan Schindehette. Jane Sims Podesta in New Hampshire, Anne Driscoll in Boston and Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C.

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