It's December 2003. Do you know who the wife of your 2004 Democratic presidential front-runner is?

Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, M.D., the Vermont internist married to the state's former governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, has been MIA on her husband's campaign trail, and is bold in her assertion that she will remain almost as absent from his presidency and instead keep up her full-time medical practice.

The quicksilver Dean campaign has already turned water into wine by making his just-folks country doctor act into the hip campaign with momentum. That fizzy, effortless Howard Dean magic may be at work on his wife as well, transforming the abstemious Judith Steinberg -- aka Judy Dean -- into the perfect foil for a new presidential millennium. An unlikely mating of rural career girl, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and Donna Reed, Dr. Steinberg could be the anti-Hillary, anti-Laura first lady that Americans have been waiting for: a cipher onto which every woman -- whether she has a high-powered career or is a stay-at-home mom -- can project herself. A woman who, like the rest of her husband's campaign, is almost too good to be true.

The official Dean For America Web site describes the candidate's wife as "the second most important person in the campaign ... who gives the insight, advice, and honest feedback that only a life-partner can provide," just after noting that "because of her responsibilities to her patients her time on the campaign trail is limited."

But limited time on a campaign trail doesn't always wash with an American public frantic for demonstrations of familial intimacy from its political candidates. And while Steinberg may provide her husband with many things that only a life partner can, she and every source who spoke for this story have agreed that political counsel is not one of them. Judy Steinberg Dean cares about medicine, not politics, and she shows no signs of shifting her concentration, even for the sake of her husband's bid for the country's highest office.

Steinberg's press for the campaign is funneled through Susan Allen, Gov. Dean's former press secretary, who explained that the good doctor could not speak to Salon because of a particularly grueling hospital schedule. "Setting up an interview means canceling a patient," said Allen, "and she hates to do that."

Eventually, Allen said, Steinberg will "do what Governor Dean asks her to do. If he feels strongly that at some point she needs to make some appearances, I'm sure she will." But until then, the Dean campaign's second most important figure is a woman who quite bluntly refuses to put her husband's career before her own.

"Everything that people thought would not work for Howard Dean has worked for him," said Democratic Party strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on the Clinton-Gore 1996 media team. "Being from a small state, being a physician, concentrating on youth, commandeering the Internet, and having a wife who is a nonparticipant. These are nontraditional ways of looking at a presidential campaign, and they are working."

Steinberg's insistence on being the anti-political wife echoes Dean's role as the anti-politician. Through her husband's 12-year stint as governor of Vermont and now through the first giddy months of his presidential bid, she has been a stethoscope-wielding Bartleby. She prefers not to: Not to get dolled up, not to do a lot of press, not to talk about her family, not to sacrifice her professional identity for her husband's, not to open her home to the beady-eyed lifestyle press.

"Vermonters were always very respectful of her choice not to be a public figure," said Allen. "It's been [the Deans'] pattern and it's worked for them." She paused for a moment before chuckling and saying, "This is a little different, obviously."

Kathy Hoyt, Gov. Dean's chief of staff from 1991 to 1997 and one of the surrogates commissioned by Allen to speak about Steinberg, recalled seeing her at state functions in Montpelier only a handful of times. "In Vermont it was an accepted thing that she wasn't involved in a lot of events," said Hoyt. "She'd come to the inaugurations, and I know she came to the swearing-in the first time and I think the other times he won reelection, but I'm not sure."

"I know everyone is very skeptical about whether she can really pull off a whole different way of doing this," Hoyt continued. "But I admire her for trying."

"On the one hand, Democratic primary voters may actually look positively on the fact that she has not been involved in her husband's campaign and has this important and demanding job," said Howard Wolfson, former press secretary for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate campaign. "On the other hand, I do think that there are many voters in this country who like to have a sense of who their president is, what their family is like, what their spouse is like."

So far, details about Judy Dean have been scarce and spoon-fed to the public in the form of a few well-placed newspaper interviews with decidedly sympathetic journalists. In October, she was profiled by syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, and in August she sat down with both Newsweek's Eleanor Clift and Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times.

Allen confirmed that while there is "no organized pattern for doing one [interview] over another," that Steinberg knew Goodman, and Dean knew Clift, making those interviews more comfortable first dips into the media waters.

The bits of information revealed in these profiles are precious: Judy Steinberg Dean canoes and hikes and rides her clunky old bike around Lake Champlain. She has only bought one new suit -- a red one! -- for her husband's presidential campaign. She doesn't watch the debates on TV because her family doesn't have cable. She makes house calls and her office in Shelburne, Vt., is full of mismatched furniture.

Steinberg told Goodman that she values the tiny size of her practice because, "If six patients call me with shortness of breath, I can tell which one needs to go to the emergency room and which one doesn't."

Well, shoot, that's enough down-home earnestness to make voters short of breath. (And yes, everyone who has written about Steinberg has compared her to Stockard Channing's ballsy first lady and working physician Abigail Bartlett on the left's wet dream, "The West Wing.")

Judith Steinberg was born in 1953 and raised with three sisters in one of Long Island's ur-suburbs, Roslyn. Both her parents were doctors, and the family was Jewish. Steinberg studied biochemistry at Princeton, and medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where she encountered Park-Avenue-reared Howard Dean. Their meet-cute story involves doing covert crossword puzzles in the back of neuroanatomy class.

David Wolk, the president of Castleton State College and Dean's former commissioner of education, said that he and his wife are longtime family friends of the Deans. He described them as a loving, affectionate couple who do not socialize much. "She is a solid, bright person who has given him the anchor and balance he's needed. I know because I've witnessed it when she speaks to him with unbridled candor, and believe me, he needs that ... She keeps him honest, keeps him on track, tries not to let him get too big for his britches."

After their 1981 marriage, Steinberg set a precedent for doing her own damn thing by completing a fellowship in hematology at McGill University in Montreal while her husband set up his medical practice just outside of Burlington in Shelburne. She later joined him and became his partner in the practice as he began to dabble in local politics. When Dean became governor in 1991, Steinberg and another doctor absorbed his patient load.

"For a long time I don't think they had a TV at home," said Wolk, who observed that the couple rarely dines out, and that the Deans' limited social life centers around their children, Yale sophomore Ann, a serious ice hockey player who worked on her father's campaign this summer, and high school senior Paul, whom Wolk said is first in his class at Burlington High School, and is "even more detached" from his father's political life than his mother.

Wolk's two daughters, a senior and a sophomore at the University of Vermont, are Steinberg patients, and he said, "they tell me that she's got a very warm bedside manner and gives them no-nonsense advice. What you've got in Judy is this incredible native intelligence," he said.

Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor whose forthcoming book is about presidential politics in New England, has been one of Dean's most irritating critics. In November, Dean told the Boston Globe that Nelson has "made a career out of trashing" him. But when called for this story, Nelson said, "Judy is a fabulous doctor. I hear this from her patients. Howard was a good doctor but not in Judy's class. Many of her patients are scared he's going to win and that she's going to leave town."

Copyright ©2003 The Salon