Laura Bush: From Reserved to a Rising Star ; the Erstwhile Campaign Wallflower Has Become a Campaign Player
Linda Feldmann writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
When she first moved into the White House, she was called the "anti-Hillary." She had long ago given up her own career to support her husband and raise her children. She had married George W. Bush on the condition that she never have to deliver a political speech. She largely avoided controversy.
That Laura Bush is no more. Now in the thick of her husband's reelection campaign, and speaking at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, she has for months crisscrossed the country, raising millions of dollars and delivering speeches on the economy, jobs, women, and, lately, the hottest of hot-button topics, stem-cell research.
In an interview in this week's Time magazine, she was asked whether the recent ads by anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans were unfair, and replied, "Not really. There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband." The Kerry campaign hit back, saying Mrs. Bush's statement showed that "these attacks have been coordinated from the top down at the White House."
If being hit by the opposition is a sign of having "arrived" politically, then Laura Bush is there. And she is uniquely positioned to speak to voters in a way that other surrogates can't. To her husband's strategists, fighting for every advantage possible in a neck-and-neck race, Mrs. Bush's months-long transformation from shy helpmate to campaign heavyweight took place not a moment too soon.
"She's incredibly important to the campaign," said Ken Mehlman, manager of the reelection effort, speaking to reporters recently. "She appeals across the board, she appeals across the country, she appeals to our base, she appeals to swing voters, she appeals to Democrats."
The campaign also hopes Mrs. Bush can bring along more women voters in a race where the longstanding gender gap, which favors Democrats, is again evident. "She's emerged out of necessity," says James Rosebush, a former assistant to first lady Nancy Reagan and author of a book on first ladies. "The campaign needs people who are close to George Bush helping define who he is. What better person could you have than Laura Bush?"
In the latest Fox News poll, Mrs. Bush scored a higher favorability rating, at 67 percent, than her husband (50 percent), Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (48), his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (49), Sen. John McCain (57), or former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (59). Senator Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, scored only a 38, but she remains unknown to many voters.
Will Mrs. Bush's popularity make any difference in the president's bottom line come November? In the final analysis, people are voting for the top of the ticket - not the spouse or the running mate, analysts have long maintained. But they don't rule out a potential indirect benefit from Mrs. Bush's testimonials from the stump.
"She's someone who has that special brand of credibility in an administration that's credibility-challenged at the moment in some ways," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "It has to do with her transparent authenticity. She's not somebody who gives the impression she's saying something because someone told her to. Voters know she's not a slick politico."
Because Mrs. …