Ferraro in the Limelight

Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale applauds Vice-Presidential pick Geraldine Ferraro July 13, 1984 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Larry Salzman / AP

Never mind that there were still a few Democrats who mourned Walter Mondale's failure to appoint Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his vice presidential nominee -- and never mind that an unnamed aide to the Reagan-Bush campaign saw Mondale's real choice for veep as "a nasty woman" who would "claw Ronald Reagan's eyes out just to be vice president." Never mind that Nancy Reagan's hairdresser in Washington thought the nominee's haircut wasn't as fluffy and feminine as it ought to be, and never mind that Rep. Joseph Addabbo of New York grandiloquently described her to the House of Representatives as "the queen of Queens." Geraldine Ferraro was in the limelight last week, and a nation's attitudes toward women in politics were being tested -- how else to explain a spate of newspaper feature stories analyzing, in all seriousness, the suddenly chic "Ferraro look"?

Swept along on a flood tide of curiosity and adulation since her history-making moment in San Francisco, Ferraro herself seemed totally at ease last week. With Mondale offfishing in the Minnesota woods, she demonstrated a striking gift for tart political rhetoric, needling Ronald Reagan on the fairness issue and twitting the Reagan-Bush campaign for its reluctance to let Bush debate her. She turned a shopping expedition to her neighborhood supermarket in Queens into a just-folks discourse on inflation and the threat of foreign competition (cheap imported tomatoes were the case in point), and she displayed a disarming sense of the absurdities of her new celebrity. All the talk about whether she and Mondale would kiss or shake hands on the campaign trail was "silliness," she said -- and after a two-minute speech before the House she took a mordantly self-deprecating view of her triumphal return to Washington. "I've gotten so many flowers, I now know what the funeral parlor is going to look like when I die," she said. "I'm just glad I'm alive to enjoy it rather than stretched out."

In Boston the next day for what was billed as her first official campaign appearance, Ferraro got a rousing welcome from the National Conference of State Legislatures. "One of the things Walter has always wanted is to get his face alone on the cover of major magazines," she joked. "I promised him November would be all his." Then she launched a detailed attack on the Reagan administration's policies toward the poor. "We don't need the federal government on every citizen's back," she concluded, playing on a GOP pet phrase, "but we do need the federal government on every citizen's side."

Family Value: Monitoring her campaign debut, Ferraro's Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill were delighted. "This week, she's carrying the load. The president opens his counteroffensive, and who's there to respond? -- Geraldine," said a top aide to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill. Party strategists said Ferraro would mobilize older voters, younger voters and, of course, women; they also speculated that she could help Mondale sell the party's new dedication to "family values" to moderates and conservatives. Gearing up for the campaign, Ferraro added three experienced aides to her staff, including Anne Wexler, a veteran of the Carter White House, as senior adviser. Wexler's new duties begin immediately -- for this week Mondale and Ferraro kick off the campaign with a joint appearance in Queens and a joint barnstorming tour to Ohio, Mississippi and Texas.

Ferraro also predicted that the '84 campaign will turn nasty -- and last week there were signs that it will at least be tough. One was the media's sudden interest in her financial affairs: as a member of the House for three terms, Ferraro has consistently failed to list the business interests of her husband, New York developer John Zaccaro, on congressional financial-disclosure forms. She insisted last week that the omission was permissible under the rules of the House ethics committee, and she promised to make a full report on both his and her holdings and tax returns within the next few weeks. But there was another nagging detail -- a report published in The Washington Post and other newspapers that her husband's firm, P. Zaccaro Co. Inc., was currently renting warehouse space in New York City to a company said to be involved in distributing pornography. Zaccaro's office said he had no knowledge of the tenant's "exact use," adding that if the reports proved to be true, he would try to break the lease.

Warning: Friends said Ferraro was "very hurt" by the adverse publicity -- and she herself said that she had warned her husband to expect "a rerun, but on a bigger scale," of her first campaign for the House in 1978, replete with personal attacks and rumormongering. "My husband said, 'Quite frankly, Gerry, I'm not going to let you give up any opportunity like this. We'll get through it.' And we will." Indeed, it seemed last week that Ferraro could not put a foot wrong -- and that the political wild card of 1984 was indeed the queen of Queens.

with GLORIA BORGER in Washington and bureau reports