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Barbara Bush in Key Role, Far More Than ‘Everybody’s Grandmother’ : First Lady: ‘George’s wife’ is critical to President’s image, key element in reelection campaign.

THE WASHINGTON POST

The last time around she was simply George Bush’s wife. This time she’s “George’s wife,” “Millie’s mother” and, more importantly, the President’s No. 1 surrogate.

Barbara Bush worked hard to get where she is today. Some who remember her back before she became “everybody’s grandmother,” a favorite campaign quip of hers in 1988, say the cleverest thing she ever did was to create that folksy, down-to-Earth image.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says Mrs. Bush is essential to her husband’s image, “even more critical this time than last. In 1988 she was a key component of communicating the kinder, gentler George Bush. Now she’s critical in communicating his message: “I care.”

Even so, the Barbara Bush of 1992 isn’t all that different from the Barbara Bush of 1988. She still jokes about her hair and her age, still evokes her grandmotherly credentials, still insists that her political instincts are “about zero,” still calls George Bush “by far the best-qualified” candidate to lead this country, still claims she doesn’t talk about issues and still uses some of the same lines she used before.

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What is different is that she’s dropped her color slide show of famous folks she has met on vice presidential trips and her campaign wardrobe has a decidedly designer look. (Recently she wore a fuchsia and navy blue checked jacket with navy skirt, plus her ubiquitous pearls. And, as she had on an earlier campaign trip to New Hampshire, she put on horn-rimmed glasses to give speeches.) In addition, she can come up with a sound bite to rival even the best of them, and she can reduce critical and intelligent people in both parties to an adoring mass.

“I have the feeling people don’t care if she’s Republican, Democrat or Socialist,” says Nardi Campion, columnist for the Lebanon Valley News.

“She sort of grows on you,” said Cindy Foley of Jaffrey, N.H., watching Mrs. Bush make her way through a shopping mall in Keene a few weeks back. Like others here, the Foleys’ home-building business has hit rock bottom. In two years their sales dropped from 20 houses a year to zero. Mrs. Bush “sort of put the blame on Congress,” said Cindy Foley, who added that she doesn’t lay all the blame on George Bush. “Mrs. Bush said her husband understands the plight of the working class in the Northeast.”

It’s an answer the First Lady is apt to volunteer even before someone asks the question. “Do I have a problem with people without jobs and homeless and hungry? I do, and so does he,” she told a group of reporters here on that earlier trip.

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The message Foley got was that because Barbara Bush is a “strong, fair, competent woman who would seem to be married to and respect someone who is the same, if you didn’t know him at all you’d assume he was a decent guy because she is.”

It’s what Sheila Tate, Bush’s press secretary in his 1988 campaign, calls “the likability factor--nobody is better-credentialed to talk about the human being that George Bush is than Barbara Bush. She reminds people how much they like the Bushes. And that is an important ingredient in reminding them how to vote.”

Lake says, “The strongest part of Bush’s domestic issues is being supportive of family values. She is key to that. He has very little credibility now, so he says, ‘Barbara and I care.’ ”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says the larger theme of family has been “a traditional refuge of Republicans and particularly of George Bush.” He says the First Lady is significantly more popular than her husband.

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“People have relied on coattails in the past to win elections,” says Mellman. “But I think it’s the first time anyone has relied on skirttails.”

Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, calls Mrs. Bush " an extraordinary asset to George Bush who certainly helps his candidacy. But whether there’s a direct relationship between the lever voters pull when they go to the polls is hard to assess.” He doubts that it is essential for a successful candidate to have a wife--not surprising since this year’s Democratic field includes two bachelors--but he does believe that a First Lady should not be muzzled.

Barbara Bush is measured in her public comments, but if she is muzzled, those who know her well say she has done it to herself, learning the hard way the damage a caustic tongue could do in a moment of unleashed sourness. Nowadays there are only flashes of the less kind and gentle Barbara Bush who ended up asking Geraldine Ferraro’s forgiveness in 1984 for her “rhymes with rich” crack.

When, on her earlier trip, a reporter at Peterborough asked whether she thought Republican challenger Pat Buchanan is “a serious candidate,” Mrs. Bush snapped, “I’m not talking about,” then stopped herself from repeating his name. “I’m talking about a serious good candidate.”

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And picking up on Hillary Clinton’s gaffe about Tammy Wynette, she reportedly has noted to intimates that George Bush gets “Hail to the Chief” when he’s introduced, so from now on it will be just fine with her if anybody wants to play “Stand By Your Man” when she is introduced.


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