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Ladies in waiting // Joanne Kemp

In a beltway culture obsessed with titles and defined jobs, the wife of the vice president has neither. Her husband is the proverbial heartbeat away, she is the second lady in waiting. Or perhaps in training for a another, bigger campaign in another year. Like a fourth in bridge, the wife of the vice president stands ready.

This week, as the spotlight shifts from the presidential debates to the match between Vice President Al Gore and contender Jack Kemp, some of the shine will be reflected on their wives.

In preparation for the debate, the Times asked experienced campaigners Tipper Gore and Joanne Kemp how they see themselves and define their roles.

Joanne Kemp is getting good at being glue.

That's how Jack Kemp describes his wife. Glue _ as in a hold-the-family together, travel-across-the-country, stand-by-his-side adhesive. The former congressman and vice presidential candidate has been very non-specific about the type of glue his wife is, but after 38 years of marriage, 13 years in football and 22 years in government, the bond must be super.

On a crackly cellular phone connection during a swing through Arizona last week, Joanne Kemp takes a moment to define herself.

"Oh, I don't know," she says with a laugh, when asked what it's like to be described as glue, one of Kemp's favored analogies of his life partner. "It's hard to analyze oneself."

Over the campaign chaos, her voice is barely audible, but it is steady, reassuring. Jack is somewhere in the background, getting ready to move on to the next stop. Staffers vie for her attention.

"I guess I am an even-tempered, calm sort of person," she continues, not missing a beat. "I'm adaptable. I can travel. I can stay home. I can do whatever."

That "whatever" is Joanne Main Kemp's strong suit.

The other wives of the candidates looking to lead the nation are high profile, with distinct roles and their own campaigns to run.

Elizabeth Dole is a former Cabinet member who rivaled her husband at the Republican National Convention this summer with her elegant tour-de-force tribute. She's on the trail alone, stumping for Bob Dole in Delaware and Tennessee.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is a lawyer and policymaker, who quietly ducks controversy these days with low-key appearances in private fund raisers.

Tipper is chipper. Tipper Gore, an effusive second lady, also travels alone campaigning for her vice president husband Al Gore.

Joanne Kemp is content to keep primarily by Jack's side. At most of Kemp's rallies, meetings and press-the-flesh photo ops, Joanne is there, gently reminding her husband to straighten his tie, keeping track of the time, bearing silent witness to their shared conservative ideology. She prays as they go along.

She's not at all concerned by labels.

"I don't have an official role, " she says pleasantly. "Except that of "candidate's wife.' I am simply the candidate's wife."

That is not to be interpreted as a mere cheerleader, as many have suggested. That's too trite a description for the wife of a former football star.

Jack Kemp may barnstorm, but Joanne Kemp has equally strong opinions. She just doesn't broadcast them. As Kemp bounced about the country for 13 years in professional football, then braved Congress and, at times, his own Republican party, Joanne raised her family, and fashioned her own life and causes.

"I am very active," says Mrs. Kemp, who's known as the keeper of the family schedule. "I know what's going on. I care very deeply about all the issues. I keep up with all the issues. I'm just as passionate as Jack is, but I'm not a public person."

At the showcase party convention, when Kemp was drafted as the vice presidential candidate, she even turned her back to the cameras.

A rare moment in the spotlight was her 60th birthday recently, when she was feted by Jack at a rally in her home town of Fillmore, Calif. Mrs. Kemp says she preferred the party be held at her mother's house.

"That was wonderful," she says.

One of her causes is the Best Friends Foundation, a group that encourages girls to abstain from sex until they finish their education and are ready to be mothers. Could it be that the best friend concept applies to her job on the campaign? "I guess that's right," she says. "That's nice. I guess I am Jack Kemp's best friend."

The friendship had a slow start. Stories have it that Joanne Main was not impressed when she met Jack Kemp in college. The football star at Occidental College in Los Angeles had to go a long way to win over the sophomore he'd admired from afar. He even orchestrated a game of touch football at the grassy park where she was studying. But once smitten, Joanne Kemp was in the game for life.

They married after school and, although she had a degree in education, she never pursued teaching, but devoted herself ot rearing their four children. During his football career, Mrs. Kemp learned how to set up house quickly and _ perhaps more important _ how not to be bullied by the media. Once in Washington, she quickly got involved in an organization for the wives of congressmen.

Her biography documents her devotion to her faith. The Kemps attend church at the evangelical Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., not far from their home.

She's active in a variety of Christian organizations, including Prison Fellowship, and founded two groups to help Soviet Jews and dissidents in communist countries. In 1980, her Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents started sending thousands of Bibles and pieces of Christian literature to those who live in totalitarian regimes.

Each week, the wives of Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and other Washington power players gather at Kemp house for a Bible study Mrs. Kemp leads. The group still meets there, even though Mrs. Kemp is on the road. Bible study members also often drop by Dole/Kemp '96 headquarters to volunteer and pray.

Her favorite verses from the Bible reflect her grounding philosophy. Mrs. Kemp is careful to pick one from "the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures" and notes the two are "among many."

"Proverbs 3:5. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,' " she rattles off on the cell phone. "And Philippians 4:5-6. I won't recite it all, you'll have to look it up, but it's "Be anxious in nothing.' "

It is, therefore, not surprising that she won't speculate on her husband's future or rumors he may run for the presidency. The debate this week is in support of the Republican ticket, not a showcase for Kemp 2000.

"We are looking just to Nove. 5. That is when the election is, isn't is?" Joanne Kemp says, then laughs. "Just to then. I live very much in the present."

She says the last bit quietly, surreally gentle given that an aide is heard tugging at her with the news that she has another phone interview to do.

She says goodbye, the connection is cut and a glimpse into her busy life is shut off like a light.

"Let your gentleness be known to all. . ."

That, by the way, is the first section of Joanne Kemp's favorite Bible verse.

Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this story.

All about Joanne

Name: Joanne Main Kemp

Age: 60

Met Jack Kemp: In college in the mid-'50s. She was a sophomore, he was a junior.

Married: 1958, after college graduation.

Children: Four: Jeff, 37; Jennifer Andrews, 33; Judith Nolan, 30; Jimmy, 25.

Grandchildren: 11

Home: Bethesda, Md.

Education: B.A. in education from Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Religion: Presbyterian.

Work: (Besides the jobs of wife, mother and campaign veteran) Volunteer extraordinaire. Board Member, Best Friends Foundation. Works in many Christian organizations, including, Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry, Prison Fellowship and Community Bible Study.

Hobbies: Skiiing, tennis.

Notable: She loves her weekly Bible study at the Kemp home, which she leads.