Debra J. Saunders

Judy Dean, Dr. Judith Steinberg, Mrs. Howard Brush Dean III -- whatever you call her -- you can also call her the smartest woman in politics. Steinberg, a practicing internist, knows enough to want out.

Note how Steinberg has managed to navigate this grueling presidential primary having appeared next to hubby Howard Dean only twice -- including Sunday's Iowa romp. She probably figures those were two days too many.

No slight meant to those hearty spouses who have slogged through Iowa stumping for their lesser halves, but what woman in her right mind would want to endure the thankless grind of a presidential campaign?

The men -- the candidates are all men now that Carol Moseley Braun has dropped out -- get to do all the talking. The wives are stuck nodding, waving, gazing up in adoration, smiling and looking as if they are paying attention.

And for what? For the chance to be America's usually vilified first lady.

Some women are naturals at the role: Think of Laura Bush or Jackie O. Others are not, and for them, the White House is no picnic. If they are political, and get involved, presidents' wives are cast into the role of dragon lady. Read: Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton. When they're not politically helpful, even if they helped their husbands win the White House, they're dismissed as neurotic. Read: Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Thus, it was appealing that Howard Dean spared his wife the ordeals of the campaign. For one thing, the fact that Dean married a politico-phobe -- she only attended two of four inaugural balls when he was Vermont's governor -- was proof he hadn't intended to run for the White House since childhood. Mrs. D's absence also showed that her husband respected his wife for who she was. It spoke well of the marriage that he didn't try to change her.

In fact, the nicest thing Howard Dean said through this whole messy race was: "Her goal is to be a good doctor and a good mom, and I think that is a pretty good goal. I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail."

Until Dean used Steinberg as a prop Sunday, there was reason to believe that there were things Howard Dean would not stoop to in order to win the election.

This "surprise" Iowa visit shows how easy the Dean Team is to sway. First, some Iowans ask where Judy Dean is. Then, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes a column chiding the Deans for the wife's absence. Insiders such as pollster John Zogby join the chorus. Then, Dean stumbles in the polls -- because of Dean himself, not because of his wife -- and his staff shifts into damage-control mode. Judy Dean then steps, as a veritable domina ex machina, from a campaign plane.

Debra J. Saunders

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