A Leading Role for the First Lady

Times Staff Writer

In a recent campaign ad called “Solemn Duty,” President Bush tells Americans: “We must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again.” Laura Bush sits at her husband’s side, silent, supportive.

But in many other forums this year, the first lady has hardly been silent. Once a reticent campaigner, she has emerged as one of her husband’s most important surrogates.

She has campaigned solo in a dozen states this month and is set to visit another 20 states in September. She has traded witticisms with Jay Leno on the “Tonight Show,” deftly side-stepped gay marriage questions in Time magazine and promoted the administration’s economic policy.


“Because of tax cuts, 25 million small business owners have each saved an average of $3,000 a year alone,” she told female small-business owners this month in Wisconsin. “Cuts in the capital gains tax and the taxation of dividends are spurring investments and making it easier for small businesses to raise capital. The tax relief plan also created new incentives by quadrupling the annual expense deduction for equipment, up to $100,000.”

Eleanor Roosevelt is not close to losing her place in history as the first activist. But Bush has blossomed into much more than the woman who once made her husband promise that she would never have to give a speech alone.

Bush is “a very, very effective spokesperson for the president and his policies. She knows him like no one else does,” said her press secretary, Gordon Johndroe. The first lady’s training as a teacher and librarian, Johndroe said, has helped her campaign skills. “If you can hold a bunch of second-graders’ attention, then you’re probably a pretty good, skilled orator.”

And when she takes the stage at Madison Square Garden tonight to address the Republican National Convention, Bush is expected to cement her reputation as a major asset of the reelection campaign. She will talk about her husband’s heart, the war on terrorism and optimism for the U.S.

Although Americans still are figuring out what they think of Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, they know what they think of Laura Bush -- and it is almost all good, according to a recent Times Poll.

Her approval ratings outdo her husband’s. More than 70% of voters surveyed said they had a favorable impression of the first lady, whereas 53% said they viewed the president favorably. Heinz Kerry was viewed favorably by 35% of voters polled.

Even most Democrats have a positive opinion of the first lady: 55% thought favorably of her. Among Republicans, 12% had a favorable opinion of Heinz Kerry.

Marjorie Carnes, a registered Democrat from Rogers, Ark., has not decided who will win her vote for president. But she knows whom she likes better as first lady.

Carnes, 77, said she was “not overly fond” of Heinz Kerry, “but I do like Laura. I think Laura is a lady. It is important. The woman behind the man. She stands behind him. That’s the way it should be.”

Voters in all age groups, women and men alike, hold Laura Bush in high esteem, according to the Times Poll of 1,352 registered voters nationwide, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points and was taken Aug. 21-24.

Many of those polled said that neither woman’s words nor actions would have an effect on how they would vote.

But when asked who better fit the traditional first lady role, 56% of those surveyed chose Bush, with 26% favoring Heinz Kerry.

One reason for Bush’s popularity is her unthreatening personal history, said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written several biographies of first ladies. Bush is a former librarian and mother of two, as well as a practicing Methodist from Midland, Texas.

But behind the demure exterior, Anthony said, “I’ve really found her willing and capable to discuss the intricacies of policy. Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan would say, ‘I don’t talk about policy, because I don’t know anything about that.’ ”

Not Laura Bush. “Her style is Old Republican,” Anthony said. “She’s really all New Republican.”



The other half

Q. What is your impression of Laura Bush?

Favorable 72%

Unfavorable 14%

Haven’t heard enough 10%

Don’t know 4%

Q. What is your impression of Teresa Heinz Kerry?

Favorable 35%

Unfavorable 28%

Haven’t heard enough 31%

Don’t know 6%

Q. Who do you think better fits your idea of what a first lady should be -- Laura Bush or Teresa Heinz Kerry?

Laura Bush 56%

Teresa Heinz 26%

Neither 3%

Both 3%

Haven’t heard enough 5%

Don’t know 7%

Note: All results are among registered voters nationwide.

The Times Poll contacted 1,597 adults, nationwide, including 1,352 registered voters. Interviews were conducted by telephone Aug. 21-24, 2004. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation and random digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all registered voters in the nation is plus or minus 3 percentage points in either direction. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Source: Times Poll