WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, is caught between two images: blond, beautiful companion to her older husband and powerful, behind-the-scenes player in his would-be presidential campaign.
Washington in recent days has been abuzz about the 40-year-old second wife of former Tennessee Sen. Thompson after she was pinpointed as playing a leading role in a shake-up in the Hollywood actor's campaign staff.
Thompson publicly defended her after articles appeared in The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine. The Post called her a "driving and at times divisive force" within Thompson's nascent organization and Newsweek said supporters of the 6-foot-6 conservative former senator questioned her wisdom.
"She has taken a lot of comments that should have been directed toward me," Thompson, 64, told National Review this week.
He said he relies on his wife for help in a "testing the waters" campaign that began at their kitchen table several months ago.
"She always looks out for my best interests, and when she sees something that she knows I would not approve of, or is not in my best interest, she voices that concern -- in other words, just exactly the way I would want her to," Thompson said.
Jeri Thompson joins a rich tapestry of spouses in the campaign for the November 2008 election -- ranging from former President Bill Clinton to Judith Giuliani, the third wife of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
While the Thompson campaign will not talk about Jeri's role, Thompson supporters see her as a positive influence.
"His wife is a very, very bright, savvy political asset -- period," said Tennessee Republican Rep. Zach Wamp. "With that comes probably some unintended intimidation of others but frankly, that's the package, man, and it's a good one."
Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist who has been advising a rival candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, also spoke highly of Thompson's wife.
"Jeri is a very smart communications person and has good political sense. But having said that she is a professional and I don't think she would attempt to run the campaign," Black said.
Washington gossips have merrily wagged their tongues at the couple's difference in age.
Thompson had been divorced for a long time and was active on the dating circuit, with such girlfriends as country singer Lorrie Morgan.
Jeri, a former spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee, came on the scene and they were married in 2002. They have two young children.
Late-night comics are getting into the act, such as Conan O'Brien of NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" show, who joked recently:
"Fred Thompson is now busy defending his much younger wife. In a recent interview, he said all criticism of his wife should be directed at him. As a result, conservative groups told Thompson he's been showing too much cleavage."
Jokes aside, the Thompson campaign is facing many challenges and has yet to get off the ground.
Plans for a July 4 formal announcement have now been pushed back to September. Fund-raising targets were off in June.
And for now, Thompson is keeping his wife from playing a public role.
"She's not going to become a public commentator and personality as a candidate's wife until there's a candidate," he told National Review.