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A Red-Headed Star is Born

Every political convention creates a few political stars and overnight media sensations, and this year some of the fresh faces are very fresh indeed. Take 12-year-old Ilana Wexler of Oakland, Calif., who began the year as another pre-teen and now has a speech to a national political convention to her credit -- not to mention booker calls from David Letterman and Jay Leno.

Ilana's freckles and red hair lit up the screen during Tuesday night's primetime session of the Democratic National Convention. Brief but memorable, her time at the podium came courtesy of Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Sen. John Kerry, whose own speech was the featured event of the evening. Heinz Kerry had invited Wexler after meeting her at a Bay Area rally and hearing of her Kids for Kerry organization.

But even Heinz Kerry could not have expected the impact her young invitee would have in the hall. Looking as though she ought to be singing "Tomorrow," Wexler described how she had started her outreach to juveniles, urging them to recruit the votes of grownups they know. Then she ventured into deeper waters, recalling how Vice President Dick Cheney had recently used the F-word in a sharp exchange on the Senate floor. "Recently the vice president used a really bad word," Wexler said. "If I said that word I would be put in a timeout. I think he should be in a long timeout."

The delegates roared their approval of that idea and even began a chant: "Timeout! Timeout!" (These are delegates always eager to start a new chant.)

I was sitting next to Kerry's sister, Diana Kerry, a schoolteacher from Massachusetts, when Ilana spoke. Kerry was in tears, so moved by this little firecracker.

I first realized the convention was going to meet this pre-teen dynamo when I was waiting in the security line outside the FleetCenter on Monday night. I heard someone calling my name and turned around to see a familiar face in line behind me. It took me a minute to figure it out. Heidi Neipris Wexler, my memory said. Who was she? Summer camp. My counselor. From nearly 30 years ago. "Are you a delegate?" I asked. "No," she said. "I'm just Ilana Wexler's mother."

How did a regular junior high schooler get the idea of becoming her generation's leading John Kerry advocate?

"She asked if she could come along to a Kerry event I was going to," Heidi Wexler recalls. "I told her she'd be way too bored. But she insisted."

The rest, as they say, is history. Wexler started showing up at a local Kerry headquarters, graduating from envelopes to phone calls. Then she hit on the idea of organizing her own age group to facilitate the campaign. That led to the idea for the web site, which has boosted the group to a claimed membership of 2,000.

And now, Wexler has had her first big-league media availability.

"I would love to run for senator, or mayor,'' she said, calm before the cluster of microphones, the glare of lights and the chatter of motor-driven shutters. "President would be nice.''

At the tender age of 12, Ilana probably doesn't have a lot of the baggage other politicians are burdened with. What bad things could she have already done? On the other hand, as Heidi just had to remind me before leaving, there was that time she punished me at camp for... well... never mind. I was just 12 -- what did I know?

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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