WASHINGTON – Laura Bush, a reserved former librarian who only reluctantly warmed to politicking, said often and somewhat nostalgically in 2004 that her husband's re-election bid was the couple's last campaign.
So much for that idea.
The first lady is back on the campaign trail with gusto, deploying her sky-high popularity, practiced smile and firm defense of President Bush's agenda for Republicans nationwide. GOP strategists say sending Mrs. Bush out to help candidates running in the midterm elections is a no-brainer.
Her poll ratings swamp the president's and those of other high-profile Republicans, with three-fourths of the public holding a favorable view of her. That's down a bit from her 80 percent approval ratings over a year ago, but well above the barely more than a third who like the job her husband is doing.
Squeezed between foreign trips focused on expanding opportunities for women and more traditional first lady duties, Mrs. Bush has notched 10 political appearances so far — all fundraisers. They began with a Republican National Committee event in Los Angeles last April and continued with stops for GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and several gubernatorial candidates later in 2005.
She's stepped it up lately, raising money in recent weeks for Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo. Later this month, Mrs. Bush is due in Connecticut to help GOP Reps. Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson. And aides promise more, to the tune of a few events each month until November.
Her praise for Talent earlier this month echoed what she has offered other candidates: "President Bush has a very ambitious agenda for the next three years, and in order to achieve it we need people like Jim Talent. We need people who see the immense promise that's everywhere in our country."
Mrs. Bush is admired as much for the unflagging support she gives her husband as for the way she does it.
She forcefully, but quietly, argues for his policies, from education to the Iraq war to restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, and voices displeasure with the president's critics.
She's made clear she's no wallflower. And she has fed the perception that she's the couple's more liberal half by occasionally letting opposing views slip, such as saying the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion shouldn't be undone and dropping hints that she disagrees with Bush's opposition to gay marriage. But, private by nature, she does her speaking out without fanfare.
And, unapologetic about her pride in being a traditional wife, she shuns any talk that she seeks her own power base to influence White House policymaking.
A visit from Laura Bush has no downside, strategists say.
Her presence doesn't draw criticism to a candidate the way the president or Vice President Dick Cheney can, in part because Mrs. Bush's own pet issues are highly popular and she is viewed as playing a supporting role in her husband's administration, rather than being a lead actor, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said.
"If she's willing, it would be foolish for the party not to do this," he said.
She is willing.
It used to be a laugh-line staple in President Bush's speeches for him to say that, when he first married Laura Welch in 1977, "she didn't like politics, and she certainly didn't like politicians." She says that wasn't really true then, and it has certainly changed since — so much so that the president doesn't even bother with that line anymore.
Starting with Bush's unsuccessful 1978 bid for the House — a campaign that served as an extended honeymoon for the newlyweds — and through his two gubernatorial elections in the 1990s, Mrs. Bush campaigned often at her husband's side. She also stumped for her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, the former president and two-term vice president.
But she let it be known that she did not relish the public glare and did little solo campaigning through Bush's first White House run in 2000 and most of the 2002 congressional campaign. It wasn't until the closing weekend of the 2002 races that Mrs. Bush stepped out more on her own — and enjoyed it.
In 2004, dubbed the campaign's "secret weapon," she raised more than $15 million for Bush and the GOP and kept a busy separate political schedule.
This election cycle, Mrs. Bush has not been as prodigious a campaigner as the president, who has headlined more than three dozen fundraisers for GOP committees and candidates in the last year, or Cheney, whose cash-collecting appearances in the election cycle already top 50. That's part of her appeal to the party — many GOP donors may have gotten the pitch from Bush or Cheney several times over the last several years, but still not had their picture taken with the first lady.
As the focus switches from raising money to asking for votes, strategists and aides expect to tailor Mrs. Bush's travel to reflect her strong appeal among women and moderate audiences, qualities that could make her a more powerful asset than Cheney or even the president in Democratic-leaning or toss-up districts.
"Mrs. Bush has an appeal than transcends partisanship, as well as an understanding of issues that resonate with those who might not otherwise be Republicans," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt.