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Dad's Image Enhancers

The Candidates' Kids Give Voters Glimpse of Men Behind the Messages

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page C01

"Thank you, Jenna, for that very sweet introduction. One of the great things about having the girls on the campaign trail with us now is getting to hear them talk about how much they love us -- and in public, no less."

-- First lady Laura Bush, campaigning in Maine

Jenna, left, and Barbara Bush yesterday in Henderson, Nev. When candidates' children campaign, it can show "that their father has raised them well," says Paul Costello, a former aide to Rosalynn Carter. (Steve Marcus -- Las Vegas Sun)

Hey, would you look at all these kids! And don't they seem like such nice young people?

These guys must have done something right in their lives, huh?

They're popping up everywhere, the children of the candidates, all on a tear during a tight race. Not since all those well-scrubbed young Kennedys have so many kids been pressed into service in such high-profile fashion.

There are the Kerry sisters, so brainy they're intimidating, hitting college campuses, giving interviews. The Bush twins, the sassy ones with the swivel hips, introduce Mom or Dad, thank volunteers, giggle to each other when the boys at the rallies hoist those Bush-Cheney '04 signs with their phone numbers scrawled on the bottom. They have their own blog, Jenna and Barbara do, heavy on the word "awesome," and sometimes they take a turn in the phone bank. Imagine the response that can provoke: Dude, I came home from the bar and one of those Bush girls was purring into the answering machine, thanking me for all my hard work.

Even two of the stepsons, those handsome Heinz boys, have put their careers on hold to stump for their stepdad. Chris, the former banker, speaks up on economic policy. Andre, the greenie consultant, breezes through environmental issues.

After the vice presidential debate, the network pundits can't wait to patter, but blessed C-SPAN keeps its camera on the stage, and here's the whole fascinating family dynamic on display: Liz Cheney, lawyer and former State Department heavyweight, capable of arguing eloquently for democracy in oppressed nations and cradling her fourth baby at the same time! Her sister, Mary, the one John Edwards has just reminded 43 million viewers is a lesbian, with her partner, Heather Poe, who once managed their ice hockey team. Cate Edwards, like Jenna and Barbara a recent college grad, grown so polished she can spout on CNN like a paid operative, but bummed she has to trade in flip-flops for big-girl slingbacks. Her little sibs, Jack and Emma Claire, score their points as adorable towheads, being hoisted from one hip to the other. In a bewildering crowd, it's comforting to be in Daddy's or Mommy's arms, and it has a neat strategic effect: The kid stays in the picture.

In presidential politics, children of the candidates come in only two sizes: big and little. Middle-sized ones are too awkward for political utilization.

The little ones are pure bundles of unscripted joy. Emblems of their parents' youth and vitality and procreativity, they're cute even when misbehaving. Little ones haven't wrecked the car yet, aren't on Ritalin yet. We haven't seen little ones like the Edwards kids in a long time, not since John-John peeked out from under the Oval Office desk to tell us we were all about the future.

The big ones are potentially more useful, but so much more complicated. Take Mary Cheney, who is 35. Her father's top aide on the campaign, she has managed to stay nearly invisible and silent through two campaigns, but when John Kerry also mentions that she is a lesbian, President Bush and both her parents feel the need to rush to her aid. The ensuing flap becomes big political news. Her life story takes on a life of its own.

Why, exactly, are these kids out there? What are they trying to tell us, and why do we care?

"It's fairly simple," says John Dukakis, who stumped steadily when his stepfather, Michael Dukakis, ran for president in 1988. "Part 1 is the ability to share the message, to reinforce what your father is doing. And Part 2 has to do with associating the candidate with a more human side. I guess to the extent that we are reflections of our parents, it's a chance for people to feel like they have a better idea about this person as a human being."

Both the Bush and Kerry daughters have had their prime-time moments talking about their fathers at the conventions. Both have had their glossy rollouts in Vogue, a spread that served as a coming-out for the previously sheltered president's girls. Appearing together, the sister acts also made a pitch for voting at the Video Music Awards. The combined Kerry-Edwards crew has made hundreds of appearances and print, radio and television interviews, according to Stephen Gaskill, chief of staff for the Kerry and Edwards families.

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