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Presidential Candidates' Children Share Campaign Spotlight - 2004-07-14

The 2004 presidential campaign is officially in full swing, with the candidates criss-crossing the country, accompanied by their political supporters, campaign planners and spouses. This year, the candidates' children are getting actively involved in their fathers' political endeavors. While this isn't unusual in American history, John Kerry's kids are taking it to a whole new level.

At his campaign stops, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry discusses his vision for the nation, strengthening rural communities or investing in renewable fuels. His two daughters take a more personal approach, visiting with local volunteers and families, and telling some Kerry family stories. They tell voters how their father saved their hamster's life, or makes pancakes on a Saturday morning. They are out there sharing the excitement of the campaign while also taking the heat.

"Sometimes, definitely it's a challenge. So, I think you develop a thick skin," she said.

Alex Kerry, 30, is a student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. She told NBC's Today Show about the most important lesson she's learned from participating in her dad's campaign.

"What you do is you try to focus on the message rather than on the negativity," said Ms. Kerry. "I think that Senator Edwards and my dad are working really hard, communicating that. And by focusing on that, it takes away from the negativity."

Alex's younger sister, Vanessa, is in her third year of medical school. She says their goal is simply to introduce the real John Kerry, so people can discover his great qualities. She also wants to correct a couple of misconceptions about him.

"One is that he's aloof, which is sort of ridiculous to me because he's very warm, kind, and at moments a goofy guy," said Vanessa Kerry. "The other one is the accusation that he's a flip flopper. I find that one particularly troublesome, because to me, my father understands the complexity of the issues. One of the qualities that I love about my father is that he listens to all sides, he takes everything into account.

"He really researches what's going on and he makes a very conscientious thoughtful decisions," she continued. "So I think it's just an attempt to label him of something bad, when in fact, he's doing an excellent job."

Alex and Vanessa, Senator Kerry's daughters from his first marriage, are joined on the campaign trail by two of their stepbrothers, Christopher and Andre Heinz. Andre, who is an environmental consultant, told NBC's Today Show, he hopes to bring his expertise to the race.

"That [environment issues] will probably be the main thrust of my message," he said. "But I'll also be hitting the road, doing door to door grassroots stuff, primarily in Pennsylvania and Midwest, I think."

On the campaign trail, Chris says he's frequently asked about his mother, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

"I just think she's genuine. I think she's a hard worker. She speaks her mind and she's highly intelligent," he said.

The Heinz-Kerry family came together in 1990, when John, a divorced father of two, married Teresa, a widow with three sons. According to Doug Wead, a former presidential advisor and author of All the Presidents' Children, having this family standing together behind him adds a lot to Senator Kerry's campaign.

"They are very much involved and it seems to be helping," he said. "The perception is that this was the missing piece. In Iowa, for example, the candidate was so wooden and when those two girls, his two daughters, got upon the stage to talk about their dad making some pancakes Saturday morning, that brought out his humanity. Some voters were able to connect with that and it made a difference."

Yet, Mr. Wead says, shining the public spotlight on the younger generation can backfire. They can be a distraction and divert attention away from the candidate's message. But that didn't stop some presidential hopefuls. Ulysses Grant, for example, the 18th president, encouraged his kids' involvement during his campaign in the 1860s.

"Ulysses Grant had his kids out sometimes when he made stops on his train tour," said Mr. Wead. "These kids would go up actually give speeches before he came. So it's not new in history, it's new in recent history."

During the last 50 years, though, some first families tried to shield their children from the public eye.

"Jackie Kennedy studied this and came to the conclusion that the most successful presidential children were kept out of the limelight and weren't included in the campaigns," he said. "She fought fiercely to protect her children and their privacy. She shared that with the Clintons when Hilary Clinton first became first lady. She brought in Jackie, and that was Jackie's advice, and they did that."

The Bushes have done that, as well. Their twin daughters, who just graduated from college, were not involved in the 2000 campaign, but in early July, Jenna Bush made her first appearance in her father's 2004 campaign. Her sister Barbara has also begun working on the campaign. Author Doug Wead says this is politics in action.

"I think that the involvement of the Kerry daughters has forced the Bushes to get their daughters out and open on the campaign," he said. "I know it's something the Bushes don't normally want."

According to Mr. Wead, kids' involvement in the presidential race could help sway some voters, especially in the last month before the election. But it is not a determining factor. He points out that Ronald Reagan won the White House twice in spite of his strained relationship with his children at that time. In the final analysis, he says, it's the candidate himself, not his running mate or his family, who must convince the voters he's the right man for the job.