In an age when political wives still walk a fine line between being too involved and too retiring, Kitty Dukakis' activism and straightforward talk carry certain risks. But the Dukakis campaign considers her - and her independent views - a decided plus for her husband's presidential race.
"She is what she is and that is her appeal," campaign manager Susan Estrich said. "She's a real asset to the campaign because she brings a deep commitment and people see that, and because she's an articulate person and people hear that."
What exactly is Kitty Dukakis' role in this campaign? The general strategy, to the extent the campaign will admit to planning one, has been to use her everywhere and anywhere.
She has visited the requisite day-care centers and senior groups, but she has also toured homeless shelters on Skid Row. And she has been encouraged to speak to her own interests - such as when she testified this summer before Congress on the plight of Indochina's refugees, based on a fact-finding mission she led to Thailand several years ago.
Undeniably, Kitty Dukakis' work on feminist and Jewish causes plays especially well among those critical constituencies. In recent weeks, though, she has become just as much an aggressive surrogate for her husband on a widening range of issues.
Late last month during a five-state Midwest swing, for example, she attacked the "me-first, trickle-down economics of the past eight years" while talking to women from the Ohio AFL-CIO.
At the end of another solo trip that took her from Alaska to California, she outlined the federal AIDS policy that Dukakis would establish if he were elected president.
That address, before the second National AIDS Conference in San Francisco, was the campaign's first major speech on AIDS before such a large audience. She was interrupted frequently by applause.
"I don't think there's a state in the country that doesn't want Kitty (to campaign)," Estrich said.
If campaign operatives harbored initial worries that her sometimes sharp tongue might be a hindrance, those worries quickly dissipated as she proved herself a diplomatic, skilled performer out on the stump.
In interviews, she firmly explained that she wouldn't publicly discuss issues on which she and the candidate disagreed.
"I think it would be counterproductive," she said, frequently adding that while she might give him her advice privately, "sometimes he takes it, sometimes he doesn't."
And the campaign staff discovered that one of her most valuable roles was not in targeting specific groups or issues but in revealing the passionate side of a man often labeled as cold and dispassionate.
Whether it was laughing about her husband's foibles - he once gave her a waffle iron as a Valentine's Day gift - or being on the receiving end of his visibly heartfelt hugs and kisses, Kitty enlivened Dukakis' image immensely.
"She's very useful in giving the warmer, personal side of Michael," said one campaign aide.
She openly discusses her 26-year-long addiction to diet pills, now conquered, on the campaign trail, with great success. Her testimonial about overcoming her dependency on pills can be moving; she often seems to touch the students and parents to whom she talks.
The political reality, though, is that drug abuse is today one of the public's top concerns. And Kitty Dukakis' story fits in perfectly with that concern.
Except for a forced hiatus following neck surgery in June, she has been on the road virtually nonstop since the governor announced his bid for the presidency 19 months ago. The campaign used her early on to help pave the way for Dukakis organizers in Iowa and other key primary states.
"She was our chief advance person," said Andrew Savitz, her press secretary through the primaries.
In Florida and New York in particular, she assiduously courted the Jewish vote by emphasizing her own Jewish heritage and using her admittedly rudimentary Yiddish to its best benefit.
She remains the campaign's most important link to the Jewish community. And her defenders point out that her interest and commitment to Jewish issues go back more than a decade. She served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council until President Reagan declined to reappoint her. She has toured concentration camps and memorials in Poland, the Soviet Union and Israel and sits on the New England Anti-Defamation League's executive committee.
"One thing Kitty made very clear to me," Savitz insisted, "she was not going to fabricate interests for political expediency."
Back home, those who have watched her agree. She may be impatient at times, certainly demanding. Yet one thing she is not guilty of, they say, is window- dressing.
"It was clear from the outset that she cared deeply about the increasing numbers of homeless," said Lois Weltman, who worked with Mrs. Dukakis on the Governor's Advisory Committee on the Homeless, which she still chairs.
"She has really good instincts," said former state Rep. Thomas Vallely, an admirer of her efforts to reunite Cambodian refugee families.
"If Dukakis wins, no matter what he does, Mrs. Dukakis will take the situation with Indochinese refugees and make it a dominant point. . . . She won't forget about this."