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Before a recent gubernatorial debate, Mary Kaye Huntsman reached over and pulled an errant hair off Democratic candidate Scott Matheson Jr.'s lapel.

It wasn't her husband, but a wifely gesture just the same - the kind of thing a first lady would do.

In the 2004 race for the Utah governor's office, there are two very different women beside the candidates. Huntsman fills a traditional role as helpmate and hostess. Robyn Matheson is entwined in her husband's campaign, writing the checks and advising on policy.

The job of Utah's first lady is largely defined by the woman in the position. Lucy Beth Rampton focused on mental health issues. Norma Matheson advocated for seniors and undertook the first renovation of the Governor's Mansion. And, with a budget of about $550,000 and several staffers, first lady Jacalyn Smith Leavitt promoted immunization and literacy. Myron Walker, the current "first lad," has no staff or office.

Historically a role of convention and appearances, the largely symbolic office is evolving. Like the women - and man - before them, Matheson and Huntsman would put their own contrasting stamps on the job.

The campaign: Robyn Matheson is the first to unlock the doors of headquarters in the morning - usually between 7:30 and 8 a.m. - and locks up at night - around 11 p.m. She pays all the bills, makes sure there's electricity and that the phones work. And she takes care of the "kids" - interns and staff. Turning 51 this month and learning to be an "empty-nester," she calls herself the "campaign mom."

It's the kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes role Matheson has played year after year, campaign after campaign, from 1976 to 2004, from Scott Matheson Sr. to Jim Matheson. Only this time, it's her husband Scott who is running, and she is the potential first lady of Utah. But Robyn Matheson approaches the campaign with the same unflappable calm as races where her heart was in less jeopardy.

She managed both of her brother-in-law's previous campaigns for Congress. Her organizational skills are legendary.

"As a candidate, you don't want to have to be managing your campaign," the two-term congressman said. "I was able to set all those issues aside and be a candidate. I knew the trains were going to run on time."

This year, Robyn Matheson's role is even more fundamental. She advises her husband on campaign tactics and policy. The candidate credits his wife with the most political experience of anyone in the office.

"Robyn's very good at this. She has great intuitive instincts about politics and how campaigns are run," said Scott Matheson Jr. "Candidates need people to tell them when they're off track. She holds her ground and we hear each other out and make a decision. I couldn't do this without Robyn."

Mary Kaye Huntsman, on the other hand, has created a purely supportive role for herself.

Republican candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. acknowledges his wife at virtually every public speaking event.

"If you haven't found anything to like about me yet, you haven't met her," he said at a recent debate.

Thin, tastefully dressed, her shoulder-length blonde hair perfectly coifed, she looks every bit the adoring and supportive wife of a politician.

But she doesn't buy into the stereotype. Nor does she feel compelled to buck it.

"I am what I am. I spend the majority of my time being a mother to six children," said the 43-year-old Florida transplant and converted Mormon. "To me, there is no greater role in life than to be the mother of these kids and raising them as well as we can."

If Mary Kaye Huntsman disagrees with her husband's public policy positions, she keeps it to herself. Her involvement in the campaign is limited to speaking before women's groups and helping "the team" stay "positive and focused."

"I critique a lot. I don't know what spouse doesn't," she said. "He had a debate at the beginning and he didn't smile. I told him after, 'You have a beautiful smile. Where was it?' "

Past is prologue: Mary Kaye Huntsman has spent much of her life adapting.

She moved to Utah from Orlando at age 14 as a high school freshman. But it didn't take long for the Episcopalian - who thought a Mormon stake house was a restaurant - to fit in. By her senior year, she had converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and lost her southern accent.

"She's always thinking of helping others. In high school, there were children who were handicapped and she would go out of her way to make them feel included," said high school friend Jennifer Kjar. "She's really pretty and a lot of times the girls would say mean things about her. She would never hold a grudge. She's just so gracious and kind."

It was in high school that Mary Kaye met Jon Huntsman Jr., though it took seven years for the "friendship" to blossom into "romance."

During that seven-year stretch, Jon Huntsman went on a mission for the LDS Church before heading to Washington to work under President Reagan. Mary Kaye Huntsman did a stint as a dental assistant while enrolled at the University of Utah. She later transferred to Arizona State University, where she majored in family and consumer studies and bumped into Jon Huntsman, who was preparing a Reagan trip to Arizona.

The relationship "clicked" and Mary Kaye Huntsman abandoned her studies in 1983, a few quarters shy of graduation, to accompany Jon Huntsman back to D.C. That fall, the two were engaged and married.

Robyn Matheson was born in Boston and raised in Utah.

The granddaughter of a Japanese World War II internee, Robyn Matheson reveled in the diverse mining culture of her hometown of Magna. Her maternal grandparents ran the local grocery store, Mori's Market; her father was head of cardiology at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center for 35 years. Matheson swam competitively at Cyprus High School, and studied political science and international relations at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

When she volunteered for Scott Matheson Sr.'s campaign, the course of her life changed. She worked in the governor's office, coordinating boards and commissions and launching the popular constituent services hot line. She also started a long-distance relationship with the governor's son, who was attending Oxford.

They married in 1978 and returned two years later to run the incumbent governor's successful re-election campaign. After five years in Washington, D.C., Scott Matheson Jr. returned to Utah in 1985 to teach at the University of Utah law school. And Robyn Matheson picked up where she left off - working on three of Congressman Wayne Owens' campaigns and managing U.S. Rep. Karen Shepherd's Salt Lake City office.

Political aspirations: Mary Kaye Huntsman was never interested in politics. But public service has always been a "passion."

When her daughter Liddy was diagnosed with diabetes eight years ago, Huntsman gathered together several kids with the disease and produced a "teen-to-teen, heart-to-heart video" that they put in a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gift bag for newly diagnosed youths.

Years later, she expanded the "bag of hope" program to include cancer patients.

"When Mary Kaye does something, she does it with great enthusiasm," said Dale Evans. The philanthropy vice president at Utah's Community Nursing Services and Hospice, Evans asked Huntsman to serve as "honorary chairwoman" of her annual fund-raising event.

Huntsman has intimate knowledge of cancer, beyond volunteering at her father-in-law's Huntsman Cancer Institute. She lost a sister to the disease in 1992, the same year that her husband was appointed U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

"The day after she died, we went back to the ambassadorial school and the only way I could grieve was to go into the bathroom and turn on the bath water and just let my tears come out," she recalls. "But it taught me a great lesson. It taught me you can do anything one day at at time."

If her husband is elected, Huntsman would like to organize a teen mentoring program for junior high school students struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, depression and eating disorders. She has already formed a committee and expects she could launch the program as soon as next fall.

Since college, Robyn Matheson has been a fixture in Democratic campaigns. She looks at the students working on the campaign and they remind her of herself. Her two children, Heather, a student at Boston College, and Briggs, a freshman at Stanford, worked on their father's campaign before going back to school.

"That whole front room out there are young people like I was," she said.

Friend Sheila Walsh-McDonald met Matheson when their children were in preschool together and worked with her in Shepherd's office. She said Matheson mentors young volunteers in ways they might not even realize.

"She doesn't mother them. She empowers them so that they take directions I don't think they fully expected - law school, scholarships," Walsh-McDonald said.

Besides politics, Matheson's next avocation is service. A former board member of Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, Matheson was known as one of the "Tuesday moms" from Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School who would pass out food from the center's pantry each week. Every Thanksgiving, the Mathesons and their children pass out turkeys.

"You can almost count on it," said Crossroads Director Glenn Bailey. "We had the U.S. attorney and U.S. congressman talking to people picking up turkeys the day before Thanksgiving. I'm sure they'll be there again."

If her husband is elected, Matheson said, she would like to continue a campaign initiative to buy books for first- through fourth-graders and promote service learning programs like the one at Rowland Hall.


Tribune reporter Dan Harrie contributed to this story.