Joan Kennedy, wife of presidential candidate Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), said yesterday she will "never be number two again" to her husband, to politics or anything else but will seek "balance in my life now that I am successfully recovering from alcoholism."

"You ask Ted Kennedy. I will never be number two again. We talked all about this," Joan Kennedy said in a wide-ranging interview with four reporters at her fifth floor apartment on Beacon Street. It was her first interview since her husband formally declared himself a candidate.

She said she fears for her husband's safety; that she no longer is bothered by rumors linking the senator romantically to other women, and that she believes her husband's account of the accident at Cahappaquiddick that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne.

In the interview, Kennedy, 43 asserted she has "my old confidence back." She talked at length about her struggle with alcohol and the impact it has had on the family.

"I've been through such an ordeal, I have a new appreciation for the tragedies Ted has had to go through in his life," she said, adding:

"We don't talk about it, but I admire him for having made it through and persisting in public life and having to relive all of the tragedies -- of the Kopechnes, President Kenndey, of Bobby.

"I have greater admiration for him now than ever before, having gone through my own bout of hell."

Kennedy also said she believes her husband's account of Chapaquiddick and that she does not think he has covered up any of the facts.

"I think Ted testified under oath, and the results were made public, and there's been no new evidence raised in the last 10 years," she said. "I think everything's been said."

Nevertheless, she said that she thought Chappaquiddick was a "legitimate campaign issue" but she wished that "it were brought up in balance with the many issues that are also so important."

Kennedy also said:

"If he (Kennedy) becomes president, I'll live with him in the White House.

"I didn't leave Washington because of the so-called pressures or the political life," she said. "I wasn't leaving Ted or my family. I left pure and simply because I was a very sick lady and needed a new treatment program. I had tried programs in Washington, but I had failed." She said her relationship with her husband is "better than ever" and that she sees him often.

Between now and May, while finishing current studies, she will campaign occasionally for her husband by making speeches whenever she has the time -- on issues that interest her. She will then campaign full-time, she said.

Kennedy said the couple's two children, Kara, 19, and Teddy Jr., 18, will skip their second semester at college to campaign for their father.

She is a feminist, but "I don't think I'd call myself a militant feminist."

She gave a lot of thought to her husband's race for the presidency before signaling her approval. "He couldn't run without me, and he wouldn't," she said. "It was natural he'd ask me.

"A lot has happened to me in the last couple of years since I've been out of public life," said Kennedy, dressed in a herringbone jacket, gray slacks and a black turtleneck -- but wearing no welding ring.

"The good news about me is I'm successfully recovering from alcoholism," she said. "The result of this is that I feel I'm a brand new person. I have my old confidence back."

She explained the absence of a wedding ring by saying, "I haven't worn a wedding ring in 10 years. I used to take it off when I played the piano, and I'd lose it."

Kennedy said she is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, attends meetings regularly and has psychiatric counseling once a week.

"It would be tough to go it alone," she said. "We would go to the counselor together. Ted participated. It can help so many people, especially group sessions for families. It's brought us so much closer. We all talk about it."

Asked how long it's been since she had a drink, she replied, "A long, long time. I asked how I should, answer this question, and I was told to say that it doesn't matter how long it's been but how I am today."

Speaking quietly and with only an occasional sign of nervousness, Kennedy said she does not think the pressure of the campaign will make it any more difficult for her to fight alcoholism.

"If I couldn't take the pressure in the past, it was because I was ill," she said. "I've been free of my addiction for awhile, and I can handle pressures. I hope to lead a better life having gone through what I've gone through."

Kennedy, who is finishing work for a master's degree in education at Lesley College of Fine Arts in Boston, said she will continue living in Boston until May, when she finishes her credit requirements for a master's degree and that she will then begin campaigning full time for her husband.

She said if he wins the presidency, she'd like to be a first lady, who works, and that she would teach music in the White House to children.

"I want to emphasize that it was my decision to campaign," she said. "I had to think through what the pressures would be on me. I have been through the wars. I know there will be rough moments. My alcoholism will be an issue, but I'm not worried about that.

"The best answer I have to alcoholism is to just let people see me, to go out and campaign for Ted Kennedy. The best answer for that is me."

Kennedy said she fears for her husband's safety and that her children talk about it. But she also said she feels her husband has the best possible protection he can get.

"You have to let the Secret Service take care of things," she said. "Ted does not campaign the way he did. He's being careful, not going into crowds as much as he'd like to."

Asked how she deals with reports that link her husband romantically to other women, she said, "It used to bother me, but that was a long time ago. It doesn't bother me now. I know so many of those rumors are just rumors."

Asked if she thinks her husband has a roving eye, she said simply, "No."