Teresa Heinz Kerry was talking, and so the entire room at the St. Moritz restaurant was dead silent, the back rows leaning forward as if the floor itself were tilted.
This held for nearly an hour, the whole time Heinz Kerry spoke. Her voice was so soft that pity the person who coughed. People would turn to the offending noisemaker with faces that said "shush -- or leave."
Heinz Kerry was not here to give a snappy comeback to the Republicans or the press or the radio talk show hosts who have used a few choice unscripted remarks of hers to cast the wife of the Democratic presidential nominee as a loose cannon, even a crazy woman. She was talking, as she has more than a dozen times in more than a dozen cities over the past few weeks, about health care.
She was thorough, wonkish. She talked about universal health care for children, "wellness" programs, affordable prescription drug plans and other ideas she said her husband, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), would carry out as president. When she finished, pushing her auburn waves from her face to flash a smile, the 80 people who sat so still for her stood and applauded.
The event received little notice. But a comment Heinz Kerry made later that afternoon to a Lancaster newspaper sure did. "Only an idiot wouldn't like this," she told the newspaper, speaking of Kerry's health care plan. "Of course, there are idiots."
So goes the dilemma of Teresa Heinz Kerry these days, not to mention a nervous Kerry campaign. Harrisburg was no fluke. The scenario repeats itself on nearly all the solo campaign trips Heinz Kerry makes these days, usually with friendly audiences in Rust Belt swing states such as her adopted, beloved home of Pennsylvania. Heinz Kerry conducts health care seminars of a sort, with other panelists, that are often 90 minutes to two hours long, including question-and-answer sessions. Afterward, the crowd is always hers. Most anyone you ask in attendance -- Democrat, independent or Republican -- will use words such as "impressed" and "charmed" in their reviews.
But then there are those "only an idiot," "shove it" moments.
Much of the public that knows of Heinz Kerry -- and polls suggest that at least a third of the public still does not know much about her at all -- knows of her from looping cable news sound bites. That public knows a woman who told a columnist before the Democratic National Convention to "shove it." (Though many people may still not know that the columnist writes for a Pittsburgh newspaper owned by conservative Richard Mellon Scaife, who not only spent millions of dollars trying to discredit the Clintons but also spent years attacking Heinz Kerry's late, first husband, Sen. John Heinz (Pa.) -- a Republican -- whom Scaife found too liberal.)
The public that knows "shove it" probably also knows what Heinz Kerry uttered a few days later, at a campaign rally with her husband. When hecklers started chanting "Four more years!" she said: "They want four more years of hell!" The Kerry crowd loved it. But the line was a new reason to say Heinz Kerry was distracting attention from the candidate. It also gave Republicans the ammunition to contrast the image of a tempestuous Kerry wife with that of first lady Laura Bush, the all-American Betty to Heinz Kerry's rich, exotic Veronica. President Bush not so subtly alluded to the contrast in his first campaign swing after the Democratic convention, when he told a crowd that the best reason to vote for him was to have Laura Bush as first lady again.
Since then, Laura Bush, who has lacked a political profile of her own these past four years, has been all over the news -- and all over the campaign trail. Her speech at the Republican National Convention received glowing reviews. She has made controversial remarks, such as saying that her husband supports stem cell science -- much to stem cell scientists' surprise -- and that the Swift boat veterans' ads attacking Kerry's service in Vietnam were "fair," although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now stumping for Bush, has called them shameful. But Laura Bush's remarks have barely raised an eyebrow.
Meanwhile, Heinz Kerry, 65, who heads one of the largest philanthropies in the country (and who won the 2003 Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal for Humanitarianism for her work on behalf of the environment, education, women and children, and, yes, health care) has kept a schedule of mostly small events.
Her first solo campaign swing after the Democratic convention, in Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Pennsylvania over four days, focused largely on events with mostly Democratic audiences, like the one in Harrisburg. In her second swing, over the past week, she has alternated between the small health care talks and rallies with local Democratic leaders.
In Pennsylvania, she has had especially welcoming audiences. In York on Wednesday, where she rallied Democratic elected officials, party leaders and candidates, several in the audience said they knew her because of the Heinz Foundation, and they would then begin citing some of the projects that the organization has supported, funded or created.
The Kerry campaign insists that it is not tamping down her profile, keeping her among the faithful, or trying to censor an uncensorable woman with a mind of her own. It blames schedule demands for preventing her from answering reporters' questions after events or from granting interviews during her swings. The campaign refused repeated requests for interviews for this story, pleading jampacked days.
But there may be more to it than that. Inside her husband's campaign, Heinz Kerry is an ongoing subject of concern, according to several aides who would not speak for the record. They said they know she has particular appeal to the base, and they hope to women, but they also know she is capable of saying things that will cause her husband embarrassment. So it becomes a balancing act on how to best use her on the campaign trail.
Heinz Kerry, in an interview in March, said she prefers intimate campaign discussions about one or two big issues, in the style of the living room campaigns of the Iowa primary caucuses, to large rallies that barely skirt the important matters. It was at one of those living room discussions in Mason City, Iowa, on Sept. 4 that Heinz Kerry fell ill and was rushed to the hospital with stomach pains.
Jeffrey Lewis, Heinz Kerry's chief of staff, said she will be speaking to bigger crowds in the next several weeks. Marla Romash, Heinz Kerry's former press secretary, said the campaign considers Heinz Kerry "an asset, especially among women."
At a suburban Detroit church two weeks ago, the turnout seemed to bear out the assertion. Through word of mouth, about 1,000 people -- most of them women -- showed up to hear Heinz Kerry give her health care talk. Unanimously, those interviewed said they wished Kerry would be as outspoken as his wife, and that his wife would be given a higher profile.
"She's the cat's meow, the cat's pajamas -- she's all that," said Donna Richards, an emergency-room nurse and self-described yellow dog Democrat, who was part of the overflow crowd at the church. "I think she should be allowed to say the things she says because she speaks the truth for the Democrats."
"If they let her, she can draw thousands of women to vote for her husband," said Toni Tomkins, also a nurse and dedicated Democrat.
But that venue was the exception. In a more typical setting, the women's crisis center of Lawrence County in New Castle, Pa., Heinz Kerry spoke to maybe 50 people, mostly women. Campaign people would not allow reporters to ask her questions during the Q and A, and said she would take their questions after addressing the public. But they whisked her away without sparing the time.
At that discussion, Heinz Kerry spent more time than usual talking about women's need to safeguard their own and their family's health. "Where I come from -- the Third World [she was born in Mozambique] -- most of the people cannot access health care," she said. "So you learn to stay well." She went on to talk about the importance of early testing for diabetes, of eating healthy, of exercising.
She also talked about how health care costs have thwarted women in the marketplace. "How do we help women succeed?" she said. "Women need to have credit cards to establish a credit history and get loans. My husband happened to be the chairman of the Small Business Committee. The one big crunch, especially for women who own small businesses, is paying for health care for themselves and their employees."
"I think she had some very valid points about health care, and she's knowledgeable about things that need to be done," said Donna Catron, a nurse who is on the board of the women's shelter. "She seems like she's very sensitive and caring. For a rich woman who doesn't have to work, to do this is very impressive."
But then Catron inadvertently raised another campaign issue -- whether what a candidate's spouse says or does matters at all. "I liked her," she said, "but I'm still undecided about who to vote for. The wife is not going to be a real strong influencing factor."