Before Sept. 11, 2001, all Kristen Breitweiser wanted in the way of worldly responsibility was to tend to her garden and care for her infant daughter, Caroline.
"After watching my husband get murdered on live worldwide television," she said, everything changed.
On Tuesday, the 33-year-old New Jersey widow was stumping in swing states with Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards for the second day in a row. It's here that Breitweiser's fresh face and emotional story are becoming an integral part of an effort to convince "security moms" that the Democratic ticket of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Edwards can make them safer and that four more years with President Bush is dangerous.
Wearing her husband's wedding band, the only evidence of his life to be recovered at Ground Zero, Breitweiser said she steeled herself to hit the campaign trail this week with Edwards, a North Carolina senator. She fought back a fear of flying born out of the World Trade Center disaster and overcame her jitters about public speaking to become a blunt instrument of attack against a president she once supported.
"I would love to have heard President Bush and the Republicans in Congress say, 'Here's what we'll do better.' But they didn't do that. They circled the wagons, they stonewalled, they blocked, they foot-dragged," she said in an interview aboard the Edwards campaign plane.
Before large, sympathetic crowds here, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, she offered a blistering account of the obstacles she says she faced during a three-year battle to start the nation toward a new intelligence system. Her presentation is raw with anger and grief, and it registered strongly with the Democratic loyalists. At a town hall meeting, under a hot midday sun in downtown Manchester's Victory Park, she moved museum volunteer Fran Gordon, 84, to tell Edwards: "You should put her on a TV commercial. People need to hear her."
On the rope line later, as Edwards shook hands, Breitweiser was swamped. Jane Ryan, 54, of Hollis, Maine, begged her to stick with the campaign. "They need you," Ryan said. "You are so powerful."
Joining the partisan fray was not part of any original plan by Breitweiser or others in the core group of victims' relatives that became outspoken advocates for action in Washington over the course of three years. They saw value, in fact, in remaining politically neutral, Breitweiser said.
But the political season has seen that goal trumped by partisan passions among the families. At a Republican National Convention awash in Sept. 11 imagery, delegates heard from Tara Stockpile, widow of a New York City firefighter; Debra Burlingame, sister of the captain of the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon; and Deena Burnett, the wife of a passenger of the United Airlines flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. "We know that what those passengers did prevented the airline from hitting the intended target," Burnett said to thunderous applause.
Breitweiser said she hopes the partisan efforts do not become an unsettling force within a victims' group that has been fairly cohesive. But she said watching the way Republicans handled the issue at their convention convinced her that she should raise her profile, no matter the consequence.
"I know in my heart that this is what needs to be done," Breitweiser said, clenching her jaw. "I have a 5-year-old that lost her father and thinks a dad is an image in a photo. She has no idea that a dad is supposed to be real and hug you. I want to know that she's going to be safer. That when she grows up, she's not going to die because of payback for a bad foreign policy."