In 2004, it's a race of candidates' kids

Life was easier for Vanessa Kerry in November, when her father had been all but written off as a presidential contender. "I could go to a primary state, I could campaign, and I could come back to my life," says the daughter of the Democrats' presumptive nominee.

She was no less fervent back then - just less famous. Now, as Nov. 2 nears, the trickle of parties and press conferences is reaching high tide. These days, Vanessa and her older sister, Alexandra, are briefed on everything from economics to national security. They board planes on a few hours' notice. This week in Boston, Ron Reagan, son of the late president, asked Alexandra: "Do you know how much this process is going to change you?"

Thursday night the Kerry sisters will introduce their father for his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, entering a spotlight that will only get brighter as the election nears. "To be totally candid, I am scared.... I mean, I am," Vanessa says. "This is a big adventure."

It's been called the "Year of the Kid," as candidates' daughters and sons crowd into the public eye, hosting live chats, dominating magazines, and trekking around the country with microphones, banners, and the occasional on-camera thumb in mouth (that was 4-year-old Jack Edwards). The attention lavished on Emma Claire and Jack Edwards has been likened to America's fawning over the progeny of Camelot, Caroline and "John John" Kennedy.

The asset of children is irrefutable: They soften parents' images, and give voters - often younger ones - common ground. But they also bring risk. Unschooled in politicking, naïve to the onslaught of media, they can be magnets for mischief as much as for votes; their smallest gaffes bring fallout.

Still, the children of 2004, at least for now, are undeterred. Many are on their way to pop-culture pages - or are already there. Political scientists say their impact will be minimal - that the electorate votes for issues, not for wives or children. Still, in such a close race, even small factors are magnified. And their fame, however short-lived, may have lasting effects.

"This campaign is tempting fate," says Doug Wead, author of "All the President's Children." "Both families are moving away from the conventional wisdom that their children should be kept under wraps and their lives should be kept private."

Almost always, candidates have brought their kids - or someone's kids - into the political fold. In the 1860s, Ulysses Grant's children gave speeches on the trail. "There's always been the history of candidates surrounding themselves with young children, even strangers' young children, kissing the baby," says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of "First Ladies."

But more recently, privacy has been the norm. The Clintons fiercely shielded their daughter Chelsea, even in the early campaign days of braces and Laura Ashley dresses. The Bushes did the same. So Barbara and Jenna Bush, recent college graduates, made a splash when they posed in the August issue of Vogue and formally joined their father's campaign.

The Bush-Cheney campaign insists that the choice was the daughters' own, "something they actually approached their parents about," says Susan Whitson, deputy communications director. Others suggest the Heinz/Kerry alliance, with five children from two marriages, may have played a role. That "Brady Bunch" clan of three sons, two daughters, divorce, widowhood, and remarriage, says Mr. Wead, is a powerful force.

Already the twins have softened their father's "alpha male" image. On a recent live chat, they answered a question about Bush's reliability: "When we were kids, if Dad said he was going to come to one of our soccer games, he would be there!"

Granted, most voters may care more about policy than sports attendance. But children can help convince voters that the candidates will live up to their words. "We have to be able to trust them to follow through on their promises," says Bill Benoit, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Even with tales of clumsy parenting, that power can hold true - as when the Kerry girls seemed to aid their father's comeback. "There is no question," says Wead, "that in Iowa, when those girls got up on stage and started talking about their dad screwing up pancakes on Saturday morning ... it really helped."

As candidates hew to their roles and cultivate credibility, such versatility isn't always an option. But children - no matter their flaws and faux pas - offer endless variety. This year especially, with a dozen kids between the Bush and Kerry teams, the sheer volume of personalities, ages, professions, and experience adds to the possibility of connecting with voters. There is studious, there is boisterous. There is tragedy and divorce. There are boys and girls, straight and gay, young parents, a preschooler, and three new college grads.

Comparisons on all levels, and across them, are inevitable. But some point to age as the most defining trait. "The way you see the Kerry girls out there, they have a different approach," says Ms. Whitson. Jenna and Barbara "are spending time ... in situations they're most comfortable in" - trips with their parents and visits to phone banks.

It's a young exuberance that has already shone through. Asked on an Internet chat to describe their father in two sentences, the girls talked about the love and respect he has shown. "Plus, he always keep us and our Mom laughing. Oops! That's two sentences.... Sorry!"

That youthfulness resurfaced recently when Jenna stuck out her tongue out at reporters. It was a playful gesture with little fallout. But for some, an offhand act can reaffirm the president's reputation for goofiness.

Beyond a stuck-out tongue, a sucked thumb, and the occasional misdemeanor, the same children who draw voters in can repel them - especially when it comes to ideology. Vanessa Kerry, for example, told guests at a Monitor breakfast this week that she believes in gay marriage. Her father does not.

And as much as the ups and downs of family life give voters a sense of being known, differences in lifestyle can still be divisive. The Kerry sisters say that while their lives may not represent all of America, their purpose can. "Maybe you can't always empathize," says Vanessa, "But hopefully we can sympathize."

Like their parents' next four years, the children's future is unclear. Historically, Wead says, many first children have suffered under scrutiny. First Lady Louisa Adams, for one, mourned the loss of two sons she'd had with President John Quincy Adams - boys she felt were "sacrificed on the altar of politics." And for every story of a girl as fearless as Alice Roosevelt, toting her pet snake Emily Spinach, there are children who unravel, or simply fall short of expectations: How, after all, can one rise above a father's lot in life when that father presides over the most powerful nation on earth?

For Vanessa, the small losses have already begun. "There are things that you want to be sacred. You want your friends, your private jokes," she says. "And suddenly that seems to be shifting in a way that I'm not sure one can ever prepare themselves [for]."

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