Debra J. Saunders
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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.

The whole thing was so choreographed that the campaign staff made it be known that Sen. Tom Harkin's wife, Ruth, had started the push to put Judy Dean on the hustings.

"I wanted to come here today and say thank you to the people of Iowa for being so kind and gracious to my husband, Howard Dean," Judy Dean announced.

But the look in her eyes said: "Please don't eat me."

Before Sunday, the Dean campaign was unpredictable: Husband campaigns solo; wife takes care of business at home; kids avoid the slimelight.

But if the distaff doctor stays on the campaign trail, it seems highly predictable, if unfair, that her next stop will be for a makeover.

Dowd, after all, took shots at Steinberg for looking "like a crunchy Vermont hippie, blithely uncoiffed, unadorned, unstyled." After the Iowa "surprise," a Democratic strategist quipped that Steinberg looks like Marilyn Quayle. Everyone will have an opinion as to how J.S.D. -- a k a Judith Steinberg, a k a Judy Dean -- should look.

By the time the campaign machinery is through with the Little Woman, it will have cranked out a regular Democratic Stepford wife -- face-peeled, pearl-accessoried, blow-dried and career-suited. Deaniacs, who volunteered because Dean is "the only real person out there," as one young woman told CNN, will be scratching their heads and wondering where the real people went.

Instead, the Dean Team should use Judith Steinberg's reticence as a selling point. An apolitical wife, after all, means no repeats of some of the Dems' most painful campaign moments. Steinberg -- the Dean Team could promise -- won't go on "60 Minutes" to present a feminist's glossing over of her husband's philandering, a la Hillary Clinton. There will be no staged makeout at a Democratic National Committee convention, a la Al and Tipper Gore. The Dean Team instead can offer a Howard Dean who loves his wife too much to sacrifice her on the altar of the campaign gods.

That would be different.

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Debra J. Saunders


 
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