WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - For Judith Steinberg Dean, the soft-spoken physician wife of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, Thursday is her day for house calls.
And yesterday, the wife and mother who has been remarkably and insistently absent from her husband's campaign, was called for an emergency - to help resuscitate the once-robust candidacy of her husband just days before the New Hampshire primary.
In a televised interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Primetime Thursday, Dean, seated with his arm around his wife, tried his best to soften the hot-headed image of him that has emerged, sealed by his much-mocked concession speech in Iowa on Monday.
The couple held hands and smiled affectionately at one another during the interview.
With his wife there to laugh with him at his Iowa misstep and attest to the fact that, in general, he doesn't have much of a temper and "doesn't get that angry," the scene was strikingly similar to the Clintons' well-remembered 60 Minutes interview on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 1992.
Then, Hillary Rodham Clinton was brought out in an 11th-hour effort to combat womanizing and draft-dodging charges that had taken a toll on her husband's presidential bid.
For Steinberg, who has almost completely shunned a public life even as the wife of the Vermont governor for 12 years, it was her first television interview, one she did reluctantly.
"I am kind of private, and I have a son in Burlington I like to stay with, and I have a medical practice which I love," Steinberg, who uses her maiden name in her professional life, said in the interview, taped yesterday afternoon at an inn in Vermont. "And that's what I like to do."
Steinberg, 50, has been more disconnected from her husband's presidential quest than perhaps any spouse of a major presidential candidate in modern American politics. Before last night, the Deans had stubbornly - and unapologetically - agreed that she would retain her distance from the political game. She had appeared only twice during Dean's nearly two years of campaigning - once in June, when her husband formally announced his candidacy in Vermont, and a second time Sunday, when she was called out to Iowa the day before the caucuses, as Dean's poll numbers were sinking fast.
Until this week, when his front-runner status suddenly slipped away, Dean had been boldly defending his wife's decision not to join him on the campaign. "It's about time somebody decided not to use their family as a prop," Dean said defiantly Monday night. "Most women in this country live the way my wife does."
Yesterday, however, Dean said he thought it was important for people to get to know his wife to get to know him.
His wife of 23 years said she agreed to do the interview "because Howard asked me to."
Unassuming, unadorned and, as she said, unmaterialistic, Steinberg helped make the couple seem like the people next door. She reinforced the perception that she is removed from her husband's presidential bid, saying she didn't see his wild-eyed display from Monday night until Wednesday - even though it has been all over television, radio and the Internet - when someone gave her a tape.
"I don't like watching TV that much," said the mother of 18-year-old Paul and 19-year-old Anne, a student at Yale.
She said she thought Dean's Iowa speech looked "kind of silly" but understood that he had been trying to "pump up" the crowd of kids who had been working for him in Iowa.
Asked about her absence from the campaign, Steinberg said, "I support Howard totally in what he's doing, and I think he'd make a great president," but added that she had patients who depend on her. "It's not something I can say, 'Oh, you can take over for a month.' It just doesn't work like that."
It was not that long ago that Yale-trained lawyer Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed the role of political spouse into the spotlight with her presence in her husband's campaign. The Clintons' "buy one, get one free" slogan sparked mutterings of a "co-presidency" and much debate about how much influence a spouse should wield in matters of policy, personnel and politics.
During this primary season, however, it has been Steinberg's absence in her husband's presidential bid that has prompted similar discussions about the role of the political spouse and public expectations.
For all the changes that have revolutionized women's lives in the last half-century and recognized women as equal partners in marriages and in the workplace, any variation in the role of a presidential candidate's spouse, generally a wife, seems to set off its own sort of culture war.
Lewis L. Gould, a historian of first ladies and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, says the public's interest in seeing political wives is not so much tied up with views about feminism or women's roles. "It's more a statement about how involved with show business running for president has become," he says. "It's like a situation comedy. Everyone steps into their role. If you start to depart from the formula, there's all sorts of unease."
He says he has been struck in this campaign by how early in the primary process most of the wives have become active, noting that in 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy became involved - reluctantly - only after her husband had been chosen as the Democratic nominee.
"In the run-up to the first voting, people are now asking questions about the spouse," says Gould. "It's an indication of how integral a part of this process their presence has become.
"The general attitude is that running for president is so important, if a candidate has a truly intimate marriage, the wife would want to put aside her career and be a part of the campaign. There's an underlying traditionalism here that's very strong."
He wonders if the same would be true for the husband of a female presidential candidate.
Myra Gutin, another historian of first ladies and a communications professor at Rider University in New Jersey, says the spouses provide the windows into a candidate's personal life and character that voters demand.
"Having your spouse on the campaign trail is the most visible endorsement of your candidacy," she says. "It says to audiences, 'My wife or my husband is supportive of what I'm doing.' We like to know the character of a candidate, and we put his or her family in that particular basket."
The wives of the current crop of candidates have distinctive styles, from the invisible Steinberg, for whom corduroys and a sweater are said to be dressy, to the colorful Teresa Heinz Kerry, one of the nation's top philanthropists, her fortune estimated at $500 million.
With the exception of Steinberg, the wives of the top-tier Democrats have been active in their husband's campaigns, several of them outspoken women who are a far cry from the dutiful, smiling mannequin-variety of political spouses.
One of the highest-profile campaigners in Iowa was Teresa Heinz Kerry, the widow of Sen. H. John Heinz III, a Pennsylvania Republican and an heir to the ketchup company who died in a plane crash in 1991. Married to Sen. John Kerry since 1995, she is an environmentalist who met the Massachusetts Democrat at a summit on global warming. At Kerry's victory celebrations after the Iowa caucuses, the candidate was often seen with his arms around his wife.
As the head of two Heinz family foundations, Teresa Heinz Kerry, 65 - who grew up in Mozambique the daughter of a Portuguese doctor and can speak five languages - is accustomed to the limelight and often headlines campaign events for her husband.
If anything, the Kerry campaign has worried that the senator's chatty and confident wife would be too candid and uncensored in her appearances. She has talked openly about her Botox treatments and prenuptial agreement and, in November, had no qualms about saying publicly what some others thought privately - that the Democratic debates, featuring nine candidates at the time, were silly and a waste of time.
In a recent interview on CNN, she denied that the campaign had ever tried to muzzle her, and talked about her blunt style. "Women with opinions get called opinionated. Men with opinions get called smart or well-informed. I have opinions, and I should, because I do very important work, and if I didn't have opinions on the things I know, I would be a dimwit."
Elizabeth Anania Edwards, 54, a former bankruptcy lawyer, comes closest to the Hillary Clinton model, participating in policy development and strategy for her husband, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. She takes part in daily conference calls with Edwards and his advisers, helps decide what a television ad should look like and e-mails ideas to her husband's staff via her BlackBerry.
The mother of two young children and a daughter who is a senior at Princeton, Elizabeth Edwards never returned to her job as a lawyer after the couple's 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident in 1996. Instead, she has spent her time with grief support groups and at after-school centers operated by a foundation established in her son's name.
She says she has always talked about policy with her husband - especially on issues such as education - and has no plans to stop now.
Elizabeth Edwards, too, has been unafraid of candid, revealing moments. Campaigning in Iowa recently, she confided her beauty parlor secrets to a white-haired woman, saying her brown hair is really more like the other woman's. "But I don't want to walk around and hear people say, 'Oh, look, there's John Edwards with his mother,'" she said, according to news accounts.
Hadassah Freilich Tucker Lieberman, the wife of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, and Gertrude Clark, wife of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, have also devoted themselves to the campaign, appearing on their own and at their husband's sides at events. Kathy Jordan Sharpton, Al Sharpton's wife and a former back-up singer for James Brown, has had little to do with her husband's bid, and Dennis Kucinich, divorced, has lightheartedly said he is searching for a new wife as he campaigns.
Vermonters have come to accept Steinberg's disconnection from her husband's political life, viewing the wife of their former governor as a sort of iconoclastic mystery woman who would only emerge from her normal life of patients, PTA meetings and 7 a.m. hockey games to attend her husband's inaugurations - grudgingly.
Before Howard Dean's first inaugural celebration, she asked, "Do I have to come?" Eventually, the inaugural balls were scrapped.
In the Primetime interview yesterday, Dean defended his wife's reluctance to actively campaign. "I think she has the right to have her own career," he said. "She didn't sign on to this."
Many voters, especially younger ones, applaud Steinberg's independence and commitment to her career.
In Molly Meijer Wertheimer's women's studies class at Pennsylvania State University, most of the students cheered Steinberg's decision to refrain from campaigning and thought it was a step forward for feminism.
"They all thought she should be able to keep her job and do whatever she wants," said Wertheimer, editor of a book about the rhetoric of first ladies. "I told them I disagreed. We do have certain expectations. The public wants to know that she cares about the American people."
Political analysts don't believe the presidency is won or lost on the basis of a spouse (much like a vice president). And Gould points out that voters have not seemed particularly interested in what issues each of the wives might champion should they become first lady. "In that respect," he says, "it's still appendage politics."
But he and others believe Dean underestimated how vital his wife would be to the portrait of him that emerged and how troubled some voters would be by her near-total absence.
"He should have realized that this stance is unsustainable in the long run," says Gould. "In the end, it didn't work - and it didn't work sooner than some of us anticipated."
Judith Steinberg Dean
Born: Roslyn, Long Island
Education: Princeton; Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; McGill University, Montreal
Children: Anne, 19; Paul, 18
Teresa Heinz Kerry
Education: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; Interpreters School of the University of Geneva
Occupation: Philanthropist, chairwoman of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies
Children: Chris Heinz, John Heinz, Andre Heinz; stepchildren Vanessa Kerry, Alexandra Kerry; one grandchild
Elizabeth Anania Edwards
Born: Jacksonville, Fla.
Education: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Law School
Occupation: Lawyer-turned-community service volunteer
Children: Catharine, 21; Emma Claire, 5; Jack, 3. Son Wade died in 1996 at age 16.
Hadassah Freilich Tucker Lieberman
Born: Prague, Czech Republic
Education: Boston University, Northeastern University
Occupation: Homemaker, community service
Children: Ethan Tucker, 28; Hana, 15; stepchildren Matthew Lieberman, 36, Rebecca Lieberman, 34; (granddaughters: Tennessee, 6, Willie, 4, Eden, 10 months)
Gertrude, or "Gert," Clark
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Drake School of Manhattan
Occupation: Active military spouse and community service
Children: Wesley K. Clark II, 34 (grandson, Wesley Pablo Oveido Clark, 3 weeks)
Kathy Jordan Sharpton
Born: New York
Occupation: Former U.S. Army sergeant; former back-up singer for James Brown; directs a school choir
Children: Dominique, 16; Ashley, 15