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updated 8/11/2004 11:08:16 PM ET 2004-08-12T03:08:16

Wives: They are an essential part of the campaign teams.

But this week, Laura Bush went far beyond being just a First Lady. “The implication that cures for Alzheimer’s are around the corner is just not right,” she said last Monday.

On a day when she spoke out about stem cell research, Mrs. Bush said in an interview that John Kerry’s argument is “ridiculous.” Then, she told voters that scientists have everything needed.

“The president’s policy makes it possible for researchers to explore the potential of stem-cells while respecting the ethical and moral implications associated with this research.”

The aggressive posture was unusual, not just because Laura Bush tends to avoid policy debates, but because this one is seen as a loser for the president.  Several prominent Republicans, including Nancy Reagan, want the government to lift the limits on financing the research. And the latest poll shows 64 percent of voters favor federal funding. Only 28 percent are opposed.

Still, Republican strategists say they believe the First Lady may blunt Democratic attacks on this issue and others. The day after the latest terror alert, for example, the First Lady went to Citicorp to show the public that the building was safe.

Meanwhile, on the Kerry campaign, there is the often unpredictable Teresa Heinz Kerry.

John Kerry’s wife, born and raised in East Africa, is as blunt and direct as her husband is verbose. And she is not one to shy away from critics.  “They want 4 more years?  They want 4 more years of hell,” she said at a recent rally.

While Democrats say Teresa Heinz Kerry helps get the base fired up, her spontaneity and outspokenness sometimes raises eyebrows. Last month, she responded to a hectoring reporter with a “shove it.”

Ironically, the damage from that moment has been limited thanks to Laura Bush. The First Lady has repeatedly told reporters she has empathy for what Mrs. Kerry is going through.

The public also seems to give a level of respect to a candidate’s wife that is rarely given to the candidate himself. It’s another reason why Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry are playing such a prominent role, doing or saying things that might sound overtly confrontational or political, if articulated by their husbands.

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