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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
A family affair
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

John Kerry's daughters Alexandra (l) and Vanessa
Alexandra (l) and Vanessa Kerry have taken a starring role

Family members sticking tongues out at reporters, or indeed telling them to "shove it", are moments which give US campaign strategists headaches.

Such incidents, as supplied by George Bush's daughter and John Kerry's wife respectively in recent weeks, are part of the inevitable trials and tribulations of putting one's family on the campaign trail. But with the risks come rewards.

Families humanise - reminding voters that amid all the tough talk of war, taxes and healthcare, these men are loving fathers and husbands who dote on their offspring and tend to their wives.

And this year, with a controversial war president standing for re-election against a Massachusetts senator seen as aloof, the families are out in force.

Kids, they're everywhere

While the first lady and her challenger have long had a role to play, for the first time in years both sides are also deploying their children as a key weapon.

Mr Kerry has a cast of thousands, including his own daughters from a previous marriage, the sons of his wife, and for a touch of infant charm - the Kennedyesque offspring of his running mate, John Edwards.

Frequently joining forces with their stepbrothers, Mr Kerry's daughters Vanessa, a 27-year-old medical student, and Alexandra, a 30-year-old film-maker and actress, have taken on a starring role in the campaign.

While the daughters do take up political issues - and indeed Vanessa has publicly differed with her father on his refusal to endorse gay marriage, they are more likely to tell stories of Dad's mixed success at pancake-making, rescuing hamsters, and how he has dealt with their boyfriend woes.

Like all dads, John Kerry can be an embarrassment, they confided before the nation at the Democratic convention, noting that he would turn up at their sports days in a bright orange hunting hat, and would proceed to cheer "just a tad too loudly".

However, Mr Kerry is not the only embarrassing dad in town.

For the first time during their father's political career, the incumbent presidential daughters are out on the campaign, insisting that their dad is just as capable of providing grounds for humiliation.


In interviews, the 22-year-old Bush twins have described affectionately how their father deals with boyfriends: "Not the shotgun-dad type, he's the joking-around-to-the-point-where-he-scares-the-heck-out-of-them type," while providing testimony to his reliability: "If Dad said he was going to come to one of our soccer games, he would be there!"

As well as offering character references, the daughters are also used to appeal to the youth vote. Vanessa Kerry campaigns in student dormitories, Barbara and Jenna Bush in their online chats.

Bush twins
The twins have joined their father's campaign for the first time

"We understand that young people are already very busy with schoolwork, friends, athletics, and hanging out, but it is so important that you and all of your friends are registered to vote and do vote," they wrote recently.

"Participating in elections is one of the most important and easiest ways we can positively change our future."

Being attractive is no small advantage in the quest for attention. Some commentators have already described the rivalry building up between the two sets of sisters as a "battle of the babes".

The Kerry sisters will appear in the September edition of Harpers; Barbara and Jenna made their political debut with a glossy shoot in the August edition of Vogue.

In their ballgowns and diamonds they looked like "cupcakes", their mother said.

And perhaps it is here that one of the key roles of the child lies. Ultimately, as any parent will admit, an attractive, bright, well-behaved child reflects well on those who raised them - all the more important when that person has presidential aspirations.

No wonder then, there were words at home after Jenna Bush stuck her tongue out at reporters.

It was a playful gesture, which for some brings a little fun into the campaign. But for others it was a pertinent reflection of what they see as the arrogance of the Bush administration.

Bring out the wives

There was a similar dispute over Teresa Heinz Kerry's request that a reporter "shove it" after he questioned her on the use of the word un-American at the Democratic convention.

Democratic aides say her outspokenness is an asset rather than a hindrance. They hope she will appeal to assertive women - much as Hillary Clinton did and still does.

And indeed, while Mrs Kerry may not be conventional, she does not appear to hold any passionate, outlandish beliefs that could embarrass her party.

Teresa Heinz-Kerry
It is hoped Teresa will appeal to strong-minded women

Although she was formerly a Republican, her detractors have had to go back nearly 30 years to find a book in which she called Democratic politics "putrid".

Laura Bush - who enjoys popularity ratings her husband may well envy - has taken on a more glamorous and outspoken persona for this campaign - her husband's last.

Although she still clearly prefers to talk about education and reading - her personal projects - she has also started providing justifications for the war in Iraq.

Americans have long admired the apparently intimate and loving relationship she has with the president, who, for his part, has been very public about his love for his wife.

But do popular spouses and children translate into votes?

The pervading wisdom is no, but with the few undecided voters so crucial in what is a neck-and-neck race - this year the family could have more than sentimental value.

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