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Her husband embattled, Mrs. Bush plays rescuer

LAS VEGAS -- This neon city of slot machines and showgirls seemed an unlikely place for the first lady of family values to debut her solo number. But George W. Bush is in reelection trouble, so his soft-spoken librarian wife is coming to his rescue, stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight for what she calls ''our last campaign."

Roaring applause, a sea of waving Bush-Cheney signs, and loud chants of ''four more years!" from an audience of 1,000 mostly middle-age, white women greeted Laura Bush Tuesday in an auditorium at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Posing before a gigantic American flag, the first lady spoke for almost 20 minutes and sang the praises -- the strength, steadiness, courage, compassion, character, and good humor -- of the man she married 26 years ago.

''I'm proud of my husband for so many reasons, not the least of which is the dignity and respect . . . he has for the office he holds," Bush declared.

Keenly aware of both her own popularity and the history of presidential wives since Eleanor Roosevelt using their unique platform to press for the reelection of an embattled president, Laura Bush has plans to play a highly visible role in her husband's campaign, which faces a yawning gender gap of 25 percent, according to an April 14 bipartisan Battleground Poll.

As the wife of an incumbent president, ''I can travel around a lot more and actually get attention from the press, for instance, which I didn't in 2000," she said in an interview this week. ''I have more of a forum than I did four years ago."

With war and job anxiety taking a toll on the president's female support, Mrs. Bush's popularity with women will become a critical asset for the Republican ticket. In the Battleground Poll, Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, won 55 percent of the women's vote compared to 42 percent for Bush. Men favored the president, 54 percent to 42 percent.

The Bush team is counting on his 56-year-old wife to energize the party faithful and shore up the president's eroding support among suburban women and soccer moms by humanizing him as a caring family man, softening his tough-guy image while emphasizing his steady hand in scary times and reviving the compassion agenda of education, health care, faith-based charity, and tax cuts that helped Bush narrow the historic gender gap in 2000.

''This administration is pretty macho, and it's presented the male version of war," said Representative Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. ''Security is an issue that every woman, every family, every mother should take seriously, and perhaps the first lady can add some insights into that."

Battleground pollster Celinda Lake, a Democrat, said: ''Laura Bush is very instrumental to the major Republican strategy of targeting women. She reinforces Bush's education message and compassionate conservatism, which has gone by the wayside, and also that he is loyal in his marriage and upholds family values."

Mrs. Bush's appearance at the Las Vegas rally was aimed mainly at energizing Republican women, and her audience readily caught the fever.

The Rev. Ellie Ahern, 66, a Lutheran pastor in Las Vegas, cheered enthusiastically, and afterwards described Bush as a lady of grace and eloquence and ''a breath of fresh air from the last administration's first lady," Hillary Rodham Clinton. ''She has a heart, and she has respect for her husband, who is not a philanderer," Ahern said.

''Mrs. Bush seems down to earth, and she's smart," said Kathey Maxfield, 47, a Las Vegas homemaker with five children. ''She balances her husband, and I'll bet he listens to what she has to say."

In an interview on her plane, called Executive One Foxtrot, Bush said she was ''not really" worried about the president's popularity, at a three-year low in recent polls, and she described this campaign as going ''very, very well." But she called it ''bittersweet" because it will be their last and unlike any of the others in her nearly three decades in the Bush family.

''As we've lived [in the White House] for three years and as I've studied more and more history and looked into the lives of the women who lived [there] before me, I've sort of developed this idea of responsibility that the first lady has to be constructive, to use the time that we have to be as constructive as she possibly can be for our country." she said.

Besides education and women's health, Bush said she will speak out on national security, the military, and foreign affairs in the campaign, because ''women are worried about security and worried about safety."

At next month's Group of Eight summit at Sea Island, Ga., Bush and Cherie Blair, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, will convene a spouses' meeting to discuss how they can advance freedoms for women in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said.

She also may be raising her profile in anticipation of the media's focus on Teresa Heinz Kerry, an heiress who is passionate about the environment and other policy initiatives. Heinz Kerry has been frank about her botox treatments, prenuptial agreement, and decision that led to her almost having an abortion. Bush said those comments were ''appropriate, certainly," but, in contrast to Heinz Kerry, she said she had no intention of sharing her views on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in the campaign.

''I know people are very interested in the personal lives of their president and his family," Mrs. Bush said. ''At the same time, I am more reserved and want a private life."

Nancy Weiss of Lubbock, Texas, one of Mrs. Bush's oldest friends, said the first lady ''stays who she is," a caring and humble friend, a homebody who loves jigsaw puzzles, good books, jeans, and long walks in the country, despite the pomp and pressures of political life in the White House.

''She tries to pay as little attention as possible to the ugly and untrue things that people say about George, and when she campaigns, she goes into places where people are her friends," Weiss said. ''I can't say she is looking forward to the campaign, but I wouldn't say she is dreading it, either."

Bush said she and her future husband made a prenuptial agreement before they were wed in 1977.

''His was that he would never ask me to give a political speech, and I said I would go for a run with him every day," Bush said as she spread mayonnaise on a turkey sandwich.

Neither one, she said, has honored the pact.

This week, on a cross-country trip to five states aboard an Air Force plane, Laura Bush demonstrated the political skills and star power that the White House deliberately has downplayed for more than three years, instead casting the president's wife as the supportive spouse and helpmate, the ''Anti-Hillary" who possesses class and promotes good causes, but has no polarizing policy agenda or ambitions to be co-president.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., Tuesday, Bush headlined a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising lunch for Larry Diedrich, a Republican soybean farmer running in a special election next month to fill the state's single seat in the US House.

From there she flew to Las Vegas, where she gave her first stump speech. That evening, she raised $600,000 for the Republican Party at a small dinner party hosted by Steve Wynn, the gaming mogul who opened Las Vegas's splashy Bellagio hotel and casino.

Wednesday it was onto Beaverton, Ore., a swing district in a battleground state, where she showcased one of her pet projects, early reading education, at an elementary school. In a press conference with the Portland-area media, she said she was proud of the No Child Left Behind Act, her husband's education initiative, and sorry about prisoner abuse in Iraq. From there she flew to Los Angeles, where she looked elegant in a cream-colored pantsuit, charmed comedian Jay Leno, and told amusing stories about her marriage and husband to a ''Tonight Show" audience estimated at 6 million viewers.

The next stop was Albuquerque for another school visit and fund-raiser. Traveling with her was Mercer Reynolds, the campaign's national finance chairman, who described her as ''the best" with contributors. Since Jan. 1, her events have raised close to $10 million for the Bush campaign and the Republican Party, and she has more requests for appearances with congressional candidates than she can fill, a GOP spokeswoman said.

Bush also figures prominently in the campaign's advertising strategy and stars in its first Internet commercials. In the 2-minute, 30-second videos targeting women, Laura Bush touts the president as a friend of parents and committed to education.

The ads began appearing May 12 on 50 websites, including homemaker destinations like Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal, and the Food Network, plus newspaper websites in 10 swing states.

''Unlike Hillary, Laura Bush is benign; she hasn't upset anyone or cut into her husband's political capital, and many feel her behavior has been exemplary," said Myra G. Gutin, author of ''The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century." ''Right now, she is more popular than the president, and she's out there because he is in trouble."

Mary Leonard can be reached at mleonard@globe.com. 

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