Laura Bush, stealth weapon

Campaigning in five battleground states this week, the first lady, with an approval rating much higher than her husband's, tries to soften the president's image.

Published September 27, 2004 1:32PM (EDT)

In these uncertain years at the beginning of the 21st century and Washington's "war on terror," there are qualities Middle America demands of a first lady, and Laura Bush seldom disappoints.

Poise. Grace. Good manners. Good looks. Those are the admiring comments that follow the presidential spouse on the campaign trail. This week brings her to five battleground states in three days. With polls suggesting that John Kerry is slowly eating away at George W. Bush's lead, Republican Party officials joke that she is their stealth weapon. For a political wife who approved her husband's run for the presidency on the condition that she never be required to give a speech, Bush has become a crucial campaign asset. She has raised $10 million at political fundraisers, and a Gallup poll gave her a 74 percent approval rating -- far ahead of the president's.

President Bush's stock campaign ad shows Laura by his side, nodding as he talks about the pain of the Sept. 11 attacks. He frequently begins his speeches by saying that the strongest argument he can make for his reelection is that Laura would return to the White House.

The signs distributed at Bush campaign events read: "W stands for women." When she appears in a modest auditorium in this small town in northern Wisconsin, Laura Bush does not stoop to the conventional posturing of political wives. There are no fake hugs or air kisses, no pointing into the crowd in phony delight at recognizing a friend. She waves, but only a bit, and with her elbow pinned to her waist. Once she begins reading her speech, her hands remain fixed on the podium, and only occasionally does she look at the crowd. When she does, she encounters near-universal delight. This congregation, as is the rule for Laura Bush's events, is a careful collection of local Republican grandees and their friends.

"Classy, she's got real class," says Marlene Peterson, from Marathon, Wis. She presses through the crowd to shake hands with the first lady, and reports that Bush possesses an unusually firm grip. "It was like a ray of sunshine."

Americans are split on what kind of woman they are looking for in the White House. In these parts, the higher-income end of a town where mores are fairly conservative, the partnership of Bill and Hillary Clinton is a thing of horror. Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the Democratic candidate, is also suspect as a bit of a wild woman. Laura Bush, they say, is eminently more suitable. "I think she is the example of a real lady. The other lady running has a lot of disqualifications," says Sharon Kolbe. "She just doesn't have the decorum that Laura Bush has."

Life in the White House has not been kind to assertive women. Hillary Clinton got her comeuppance with her spectacular failure to reform healthcare policy. Laura Bush has been far more circumspect in pursuing her policy interest -- literacy -- discreetly inviting her favorite writers to the White House. She is far too disciplined to do much more than hint at disagreement with her husband's policies, as she did in an interview in October's GQ, when she intimated she did not share his rigid stance on abortion.

"She doesn't put herself before her husband. She supports her husband fully," says Sue Becker, whose daughter, Ann Hunger, adds: "That's the way it should be, because her husband is the president."

There are a few brave souls who say they prefer a woman with definite opinions, but they admit to feeling a bit lonely in Wausau. "I think the first lady should have a story behind herself; but I don't imagine the rest of the country does," says Rebecca Pilgrim-Tylinski, a lawyer.

After growing up an only child in Midland, Texas, Laura Welch as a young woman was interested in culture and travel. She visited Europe after college and worked as a teacher and a librarian. She was 30 -- and a Democrat -- when she met and married Bush. The couple were the only ones among their friends still single at the time.

Marriage into America's preeminent dynasty had its trials. Until he became a Christian, Bush was an alcoholic. In 1986 Laura Bush is said to have offered him the choice: "Jim Beam or me." Their twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, 22, have a string of arrests for underage drinking. But none of those faults in the first family -- not even Laura Bush's surreptitious smoking habit -- detract from her appeal on the campaign trail.

During the past few weeks, opinion polls have detected a slide in Kerry's popularity among women -- generally one of the Democratic Party's core areas of support. Al Gore took 54 percent of the women's vote in 2000 against 43 percent for Bush. But the nervousness of so-called security moms -- women who think that dangerous times demand a tough leader -- and the personal appeal of the first lady are bringing female voters around to Bush.

So Laura Bush is out on the road, delivering her 25-minute speech, working the lines, shaking hands and posing for photographs.

Like many political speeches, hers rarely deviate from a standard text. She urges people not to be discouraged by the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq. "These acts are grim reminders of why our war to defeat terrorism and create free societies in the Middle East is so important," she says. Later, several members of the audience say this was their favorite line.

This is Laura Bush's most important task -- to validate the choices of a man who often seems abrasive and uncaring. Once that is done, she returns her message to the personal with her trademark line: "George and I grew up in west Texas, where the sky seems endless and so do the possibilities."

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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