Election 2004: Campaign Trail Mix

updated 08/09/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/2004 01:00AM

When Teresa Heinz and John Kerry first started dating, they had five good reasons to take things slowly. Kerry's daughters, Vanessa and Alexandra, were fiercely protective of their divorced dad, while Heinz's sons, John IV, Andre and Chris, were still mourning the sudden death of their father, Pennsylvania senator John Heinz. To help ease the kids into the relationship, at a family gathering at Christmas in Ketchum, Idaho, Heinz and Kerry made the decision to sleep in separate bedrooms. "John stayed in the guest room," recalls Chris Heinz. "It was a good idea."

Evidently. As Democrats gathered in Boston to make Kerry their presidential nominee, his blended brood was standing behind him. Not just Alexandra, 30, an aspiring filmmaker, and Vanessa, 27, a third-year Harvard med student, but the Heinz boys too: Chris, 31, who formerly worked for a private equity firm, and Andre, 34, an environmental consultant, who—like the rest of the children—has been a fixture on the campaign trail. Only press-shy older brother John Heinz IV, 37, avoids the political spotlight (see box). All grownup they may be, but the telegenic Heinz-Kerry kids often seem like a campaign version of the Brady Bunch, complete with sitcom-ready sibling spats ("the boys still won't let me play paintball," says Alexandra, pretending to pout). And pundits like what they see. "The bigger and more diverse the family, the better the reach," says Doug Wead, a former adviser to President Bush senior, with perhaps just a hint of envy. "The Kerrys have a deep bench."

Not that the road to one big happy family was always smooth. After Kerry and Heinz wed at her home in Nantucket in 1995, their grown children, who were all over 18 and had traveled the same elite East Coast boarding-school and Ivy League-college circuit, still had some trouble adjusting. "Were there bumps?" says Vanessa. "Yeah, initially." Adds Chris: "I won't say everything was splendid all the time."

But, sensitive to his wife's sons' feelings, Kerry was mindful never to try and fill the shoes of their late father, heir to the vast Heinz fortune, who died in a 1991 plane crash. Instead he bonded with them over sports and the foosball table. "Beneath the Lincoln-esque exterior, he's very goofy in his down moments, so we became pretty close," says Chris, who's now so tight with his stepfather that he even lends him the keys to his prized Contender sportfishing boat. For her part, Teresa wooed her stepdaughters by giving them the pick of rooms in the Boston townhouse she and Kerry bought in '95. "I created the bedrooms they wanted, the furnishings, the bathrooms," says Heinz-Kerry. Adds her husband: "She made them a home."

The younger generation made familial adjustments over "house rules—remembering to put glasses to the side of the sink rather than in it," says Vanessa, while Chris and his brothers caught flak for routine brotherly horseplay. "Vanessa's very protective when I make fun of Andre," says Chris. "She'll say, 'Don't say that about your brother!'" But when four of the five sibs decided to join Kerry on the campaign trail, there were other stresses. The Kerry girls often speak by phone to their mother, Julia Thorne, 59, who was divorced from Kerry in 1988 and now lives quietly in Montana. But, says Vanessa, "one of the hardest things is that she can't be there, laughing with us and helping us figure out what to wear."

Stumping together has further blurred family divisions. "Now we have stupid jokes between us that no one else gets," says Vanessa of the recent campaign swing she and Chris took through college campuses. Politicking, says Chris, "gave us some empathy for our parents. The old man works really hard."

The other sibs contribute too. Andre—a Yale grad with "a mind like Robin Williams," says Alexandra—provides comic relief with wicked impersonations of Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush. Alexandra is shooting footage for a documentary on her dad's presidential bid. But in the long run, say all, the best Kodak moments are the private ones. "I've heard tales about a presidential campaign driving families apart, but it's brought ours closer together," Alexandra says. Vanessa agrees. "This whole thing is an adventure, and oddly this sort of great gift," she says. "We actually really have become a family."

Susan Schindehette. Macon Morehouse in Denver and Mary Green in Bucks County

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