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Laura Bush's political prominence reflects her popularity
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First lady Laura Bush visited a female-owned business in St. Cloud in August. Her profile on the campaign trail has risen lately, particularly since polls show she is more popular than her husband, President George Bush. (MPR file photo)

New York, N.Y. — (AP) - First lady Laura Bush, in a rare foray into foreign policy Tuesday, presented her husband as a commanding warrior against terrorism in a prime-time convention speech that highlighted his leadership in "the most historic struggle my generation has ever known."

On a night when the convention's overarching theme was to be compassion, the first lady chose to address "the issue that I believe is most important for my own daughters, for all our families, and for our future: George's work to protect our country and defeat terror so that all children can grow up in a more peaceful world."

In excerpts of her speech released Tuesday morning, Mrs. Bush said: "I am so proud of the way George has led our country with strength and conviction."

"Our parents' generation confronted tyranny and liberated millions," the first lady said. "As we do the hard work of confronting today's threat - we can also be proud that 50 million more men, women and children live in freedom today thanks to the United States of America and our allies."

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Image Laura Bush in St. Paul

Mrs. Bush made the rounds of the morning news shows in advance of her Madison Square Garden appearance.

The first lady is seen as a potent political weapon for her husband, who often tells audiences that the best reason to vote for him is that a re-election victory means four more years of Laura Bush.

Polls show Laura Bush is more popular than her husband, which may be one reason the president gives her star treatment at his own campaign events.

She is an effective campaigner, perhaps more so than other popular first ladies, because she appeals to committed Republicans and coveted independent voters alike, scholars of the presidency said.

"Previously she was pretty much in the background, but now they have brought her to the foreground because ... he needs all the help he can get," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at Boston University.

Previously she was pretty much in the background, but now they have brought her to the foreground because ... he needs all the help he can get.
- Historian Robert Dallek, Boston University

Two-thirds of voters have a favorable view of Laura Bush and 12 percent have an unfavorable view, recent polls show.

By contrast, just over half have a favorable view of the president and more than four in 10 have an unfavorable view.

She is campaigning almost daily, sometimes with Bush but more often on her own. That is a change from her role in the 2000 presidential election and from Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, when she let it be known she did not relish the public glare.

Her campaign appearances are still less overtly political than her husband's. She often speaks to women's organizations, and stresses the importance of education and literacy. She usually gets in a joke about her husband being surrounded by powerful women, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and his wife.

In August, Laura Bush campaigned in battleground states including Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania. She appeared with Bush in Michigan on Monday, then flew to New York Tuesday after a round of morning interviews. She will squeeze in a campaign stop on Wednesday before returning to New York to watch Bush accept the nomination Thursday night.

Laura Bush's convention speech will reflect what people seem to like about her, predicted Paul Boller Jr., professor emeritus of political science at Texas Christian University, who has studied the role of first ladies in presidential campaigns.

"She helps present a moderate view of Bush, and that is an aim of the convention," Boller said.

Laura Bush will follow moderate California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an abortion rights supporter, to the podium.

Laura Bush has said she does not think Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling allowing nationwide legalized abortion, should be overturned. But more recently, she also has defended her husband's limitation of embryonic stem cell research.

In an interview this week in Time magazine, she said she has an open mind about whether the country needs a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, something her husband supports and which is part of the GOP platform.

Asked if she has ever hosted a gay couple at the White House or in Texas, Bush replied, "I'm sure we have."

Voters may see Laura Bush as an ideological buffer similar to her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, Boller said.

He noted that Barbara Bush had a speaking role at the 1992 convention that renominated George H.W. Bush. That convention was marked by divisions over social issues and by strongly conservative speeches from the floor.

"Pat Buchanan spoke, and he was very extreme, and then Barbara spoke and she was moderate," Boller said. "They'll try it again."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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