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Teresa Unplugged

updated 05/10/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/2004 01:00AM

Midway through a speech at historically black Bethune-Cookman College in the once and future election battle-ground state of Florida, Teresa Heinz Kerry is taking a crowd of students on a tour of her world. It begins with her African childhood in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, shifts to a talk about a study on estrogen and cholesterol in which "24-year-old guys all grew breasts," then turns into a plea for young people to take care of the environment. "Your future depends on what you breathe and eat," she declares. Then she pauses. "Am I supposed to mention my husband?"

Oh—that guy: Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate. When pundits debate Kerry's prospects, they mention his impressive Vietnam service, his votes on funding the war in Iraq—and, almost always, his wife. In an age of scripted sound bites, Teresa Heinz Kerry refuses to be anything other than her own passionate self. The question for voters: Will they take to this highly intelligent woman with idiosyncrasies that a more traditional political wife would do her best to hide? "I haven't found my place," she candidly admits of her role in the campaign. "I don't yet know who I really am."

Heinz Kerry once admitted she used Botox; she has, so far, declined to release her tax returns; and she often invokes the memory of her first husband, ketchup heir and Republican senator John Heinz, who died in a 1991 plane crash, leaving Heinz Kerry with a fortune valued at $500 million. "People worry about her being a loose cannon," says Chris Heinz, 31, the youngest of her three sons by Heinz. "She isn't processed. I just see my mom being herself."

Who she is, according to those who know her, is a domestic creature who is also so impressive that when Heinz died, the Republican Party urged her to run for his vacant Senate seat (she declined). Friends describe Heinz Kerry, 65, as perfectly willing to plan her husband's daily meals—"the old mom thing," she calls it—and at the same time able to run one of the country's largest private philanthropies, the $1.3 billion Heinz 73 Endowments. She also can talk global warming—in five languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and English). "As far as I'm concerned, I love her the way she is," says John Kerry, 60. "I think she's wise and has a great sense of people and a great sense of style. She's an amazing person."

For voters just getting to know her, though, the contradictions can be jarring. The daughter of José Simões-Ferreira, a Portuguese oncologist, and Irene Thierstein, a homemaker, she was born to privilege in her dirt-poor homeland. "[But] money is not intrinsic to who she is," says Chris, who left his job in finance to work for his stepfather's campaign. Educated in Catholic schools, she developed a social conscience early in life. "I grew up under a dictatorship," she tells supporters. "America was everything I didn't have—optimistic, generous of heart, tolerant." In the '50s she marched against apartheid while in college in South Africa and, at 24, left Africa to study to be an interpreter in Geneva, where she met Heinz, then working at a Swiss bank.

The couple wed in 1966 and had three sons: John, now 37, who runs a school in Pennsylvania; Andre, 34, an environmental consultant living in Sweden; and Chris—whose previous brush with celebrity was a few dates with Gwyneth Paltrow in 2001. Russ Martz, a retired Pittsburgh journalist, recalls showing up at the Heinz farm in the horsey Pittsburgh suburb of Fox Chapel to help John Heinz with his first run for Congress in 1970. "John was in the library, and there was a door open to a lavatory on the first floor, and a woman was in there down on her knees with a kerchief on her head, cleaning the toilet. She spoke with an accent, and said hello," says Martz. "I was convinced she was the maid. Then John says, 'Have you met my wife, Teresa?' "

After her husband's death, Heinz Kerry threw herself into running the Heinz foundations, creating an environmental research center in Washington, D.C., encouraging green architecture and shaping a prescription-drug plan that passed the Massachusetts legislature in 2001. Pittsburgh mayor Thomas Murphy calls her St. Teresa, but Heinz Kerry riled longtime recipients of her family's largesse when she pulled funding from the city's schools in 2002 over concerns about mismanagement. "If something needs to be fixed or there is a better way to do it, she'll say so even if she offends the status quo," says Susan Brownlee, executive director of the Grable Foundation, which joined Heinz in that action.

Until last year, Heinz Kerry remained a registered member of the GOP, but one with decidedly centrist views. (She cast her first vote for Kerry in this April's Pennsylvania primary.) A Roman Catholic who attends church regularly, she has spoken openly about her struggle with the abortion issue. Twenty years ago, Heinz Kerry says she became pregnant and, upon learning she was carrying a fetus that would be born severely deformed, made an appointment to end the pregnancy. She miscarried before the day arrived. That experience confirmed her support of abortion rights, even if she calls the procedure "a terrible thing to have to do." As for the recent declaration by a Vatican official that politicians (like John Kerry) who support abortion rights should not be granted Communion, Heinz Kerry is typically plainspoken: "I may be a good Catholic, a bad Catholic or a so-so Catholic," she says. "But that's who I am."

That sort of frankness impressed John Kerry, a Senate acquaintance to whom she grew close after attending an Earth Day Summit in Rio in 1992. "My mom is a pretty demanding person to be in a relationship with, discussing feelings and emotion and confronting them, and I think that's helped John," says Chris. After initial tension with Kerry's two daughters, Alexandra, 30, an actor, and Vanessa, 27, a medical student, Teresa was welcomed into the fold, says Diana Walker, a photographer and friend of the Kerrys'. "It's a wonderful mesh of families."

Since Kerry announced his candidacy, his wife has been on the campaign trail almost nonstop. Forced to give up her daily walks, she admits she's gained weight on road food. "I can't be anxious about it," she says. "One thing at a time." The grueling regime offers rare moments of relief: When their mainly separate schedules happen to collide, John and Teresa make a point of carving out 15 minutes alone together for dinner. "You just make the best of it and enjoy the fun parts," she says. And ignore the flak: "I couldn't not be who I am. That bubble eventually bursts down the road. So you just have to be real, and when you goof up, say you goofed up."

J.D. Heyman. Linda Kramer with the Kerry campaign, Tom Duffy in Boston and Jennifer Longley in Nantucket

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