MATE CHECK

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A fine line separates sweet from saccharin, and smart from sharp. In the view of Americans, how deftly do the current first lady and would-be first lady walk that fine line? What do voters say they want in a first lady? Do Americans really know what they want? The answers to the first two questions from almost 1,000 respondents were complex. However, in the 60 years since the Roosevelts left Washington, D.C., Jackie Kennedy changed the White House and Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush eyed each other like jackals circling their prey, the answer to the third question is emphatically, No. Americans' ideas about what a first lady should be are chock full of contradictions. An exclusive poll for American Demographics conducted by Zogby International found the following:

Laura Bush is probably incapable of annoying anyone. A huge majority of Americans support the idea of a Teresa Heinz Kerry they just don't seem to like her personally as much as what she stands for. If Hillary Clinton wants to run for president in a few years, she's got an uphill battle even among Democrats. Lastly, a message to Eleanor Roosevelt, if anyone is channeling you these days: Come back; all is forgiven.

The first lady is the most bizarre volunteer job in the world, says Ann Gerhart, author of The Perfect Wife, a best-selling book about Laura Bush. Who would voters prefer to be in that bizarre job? By a huge margin 54 percent to 37 percent respondents in the poll picked Bush. Interestingly, in a question about whom they would prefer as president, the numbers were much closer, with Bush getting 45 percent and Heinz Kerry 41 percent, with a margin of error of about 3 percent. In this job, people think of Laura as safe, says Gerhart, People feel a kinship with her.

I think the biggest thing at work here is that they already know Laura Bush as first lady, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor and author of popular books on how people fail to communicate. There's already a comfort level that they don't have yet with Teresa Heinz Kerry.

I've heard Teresa Heinz Kerry speak in person, and she is very warm, says Tannen. But before a TV audience Kerry is less knowable than Laura Bush. And Heinz Kerry's slight accent makes her seem a little less familiar, adds TannenE

Surprisingly, party line splits were not particularly strong predictors in this poll. While 93 percent of GOP respondents said Bush makes a better first lady, only 65 percent of Democrats backed Heinz Kerry a defection of 24 percent of Dems chose Bush. But white Southerners were steadfastly with Bush; Easterners and African Americans more solidly for Heinz Kerry. People prefer to have someone like Bush as their mother, by an almost 2-to-1 ratio over Heinz Kerry. And Bush was the first choice for spouse with 30 percent, compared with 19 percent for Heinz Kerry. Of note, Elizabeth Edwards pulled in 16 percent as a choice for mother. She is very maternal, seen as juggling motherhood and working for a living, Gerhart observes.

Who makes a better role model for young women? Not surprisingly, GOP respondents gave Bush 89 percent of their support. Democrats gave Heinz Kerry 61 percent, with another 30 percent of them going with Bush.

Any poll on a first lady is going to come down to a personality contest, says Gerhart. And Heinz Kerry's strong personality as an individual may be undercutting support for her as an archetype. Americans are still conflicted over how much the first lady should stay in a secondary role, with few speaking parts, and one particular question in the poll showed how polarizing a strong woman remains.

We asked respondents what kind of first lady they preferred as a model: The traditional, stand-by-your-man type, whose most controversial stand might be over the need to improve literacy, or the newer version, Prototype B. As we described the latter: Times are changing. It is perfectly acceptable for a first lady to have her own career and ideas, and to express them.

The women in Congress and corporate boardrooms will be thrilled to learn that 65.5 percent chose B, the upgraded model. But that number only holds in theory. Asked to name the best and worst characteristics of Bush and Heinz Kerry, almost 1 in 5 of those polled, the largest group choosing any positive or negative adjective, said Heinz Kerry was mouthy/talks too much.

For Tannen, this says more about Americans than about the two first lady candidates. When have you ever heard a man called mouthy? she asks.

Some of this reaction to Heinz Kerry can be attributed to the media and word of mouth, so to speak, says Tannen. People have been told that Teresa is outspoken, and after a while, that's what they think and say about her. In her book, Talking from 9-5: Women and Men at Work, Tannen explains the problem for women in authority: Why would people say they want women to speak their mind, but that a woman who does still rubs them the wrong way? We come to women expecting that they're going to be a certain way, and we have a certain reaction if they don't. It puts women in public life in a difficult position.

Who is more of an asset to her husband's campaign? Laura Bush 90 percent consider her an asset. But only 53 percent of those polled consider Heinz Kerry an asset. And 14 percent of the Democrats polled consider her a liability. The poll was taken after the Democratic convention, during which Heinz Kerry spoke, and after her encounter with a hostile journalist, who she told to shove it.

Janet Donovan, publicist and director of Creative Enterprises in Washington, D.C., has seen first ladies and female politicians come and go in the capital. Although she says she personally prefers Heinz Kerry as a role model, after seeing the results of the poll, she adds herself to the numbers who consider Bush more of an asset to her husband. But Donovan explains, What makes Teresa a liability during the campaign is that she's out there, she's not safe, like Laura. However, I think the same qualities that make her a liability before the election would make her a better first lady afterward, because she would have issues for which she would speak up, and work.

Gerhart, as a chronicler of recent first ladies, says she's intrigued by some of the support for Heinz Kerry. She is fabulously wealthy, and there's been no shortage of attempts by the GOP to portray her as out of touch with Americans.

But Teresa has overwhelming support in this poll from those with the lowest incomes, and among African Americans. Either they are all Democrats, or Teresa is successful at presenting herself and her life's work, as that of an outsider, an immigrant, trying to make it here. There's some sympathy for that.

The most ideal first lady by far, in a long list offered to respondents, was Eleanor Roosevelt. This surprised experts we interviewed. Roosevelt was often criticized harshly in her time as first lady, and made the butt of many jokes when Hillary Clinton offered her as a role model a few years ago. But more than 1 in 4 likely voters chose Roosevelt; she garnered 41 percent among the 18 to 29 cohort. Maybe those young people are paying closer attention to history books than we realize, says Gerhart. Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush trailed Roosevelt, with about 17 percent, though Clinton was preferred by African Americans and those with the lowest income levels.

This business of picking Eleanor Roosevelt mirrors what goes on with Americans, says Gerhart. She was the most activist first lady of all time. So, they're saying that activism is the most important characteristic in the ideal, and then they say that Heinz Kerry is too mouthy. You can't square these results in this poll.

Roosevelt's win was amazing, says David Beckwith, former communications czar for Vice President Dan Quayle. Beckwith, now counsel to the Republican Senate Conference and working for President Bush says, She was a very empathetic character during the most difficult time we had. But only people over 70 have any firsthand recollection of her.

As with Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt may have become more popular in death. Tannen thinks she would not fare as well if she were around today. She wasn't good looking, she was very outspoken, not taking a back seat. But this is a name that comes from the past in glowing terms. The answer has little to do with her.

Speaking of outspoken women, if Hillary Clinton were running for president right now she would lose, about 55 percent to 42 percent. A full 45 percent of all respondents said they would definitely not vote for her. That includes 20 percent of Democrats polled. And Clinton neatly divided men from women by 10 percent, though the two genders had been very close on almost every other question. Her only majority support was among Easterners and African Americans. Surprisingly, she fared poorly among the youngest voters, whom she has been courting.

This shows why Hillary has replaced Teddy Kennedy as a rallying figure for Republicans, says Beckwith, But also the leading fund-raiser for Democrats. He likened her pull to that of GOP Congressman Tom Delay of Texas. She has helped the GOP raise money, as a target, and she is a huge draw for Democrats, he observes. But, he thinks the anti-Hillary vote among Democrats is more nuanced than the poll shows. Democrats saw this and were responding more to the idea of who can beat Bush right now, Beckwith says.

Hillary remains the anti-Laura, says Gerhart. She's either seen as a trailblazer or self-aggrandizing. It's very partisan.

Beckwith doesn't think that Hillary's gender will matter much in 2008 except perhaps to Bill Clinton. I think the idea of a woman running for president or vice president has stopped being the issue it was 20 years ago, he says. We're ready for it.

So, we're ready for a woman president, but not for a mouthy first lady. People are contradictory, says Tannen, who has addressed The Hillary Factor. One of the basic tenets of my field is to ask people not what they would do, but what they really do. And what did they do here? Says Tannen: They showed that things haven't changed quite as much as we thought they would have by now.

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