By Alexandra Starr
First Lady Laura Bush will vouch for her husband's compassionate side in a prime-time speech tonight at the Republican National Convention. The First Lady is probably the President's best emissary to female voters -- a demographic bloc whose approval he's still losing by about nine percentage points to his competitor, Senator John Kerry, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
The effort to win over more women voters opened on Aug. 30, as the Cheney and Bush women -- minus the First Lady, who was on the hustings for her husband -- vouched for the President at a "W is for Women" event at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Although Laura Bush wasn't in the room, it was clear she was the real star of this event. "One of the best reasons to reelect George W. Bush is you get four more years of Laura as First Lady," Doro Bush Koch, sister of the President, declared to the cheering crowd.
The kudos flowed, including praise for Mrs. Bush's ennobling influence over her husband. "Everyone loves the First Lady," gushed Rosario Marin, former U.S. Treasurer who ran unsuccessfully to be California's Republican Senate nominee this year. "She's at the President's side, providing the warmth and support that he needs."
The Bush campaign has been dispatching her to swing states across the country to speak out on issues that resonate with women and swing voters -- putting a compassionate face on her husband's policy on limiting federal funding for stem-cell research, for example. The President's position is unpopular with the public -- recent polls show that about 70% of likely voters in opposition. But having Laura Bush vouch for her husband arguably gives his stance a more sympathetic sheen.
The women in this crowd certainly didn't need any prodding to be in the Bushes' corner. "W" pins were ubiquitous, and elephant accoutrements were prominently displayed -- on necklaces, bracelets, and in one case as a wooden carved purse.
Yet, while polls show health care and education generally rank high among female concerns, the attendees at this fund-raiser were more focused on traditional Republican issues like tax policy and national security. "This President has done so much for female small-business owners," said Terry Neese, a member of the national "W is for Women" steering committee and a Ranger fund-raiser. "He has been so effective on lowering taxes, particularly the new expensing provisions, which have allowed us to purchase more equipment."
Most of the testimonials centered on the President's character and steadfastness. "He speaks his mind," confided former First Lady Barbara Bush, mother-in-law of Laura Bush (see BW Online, 8/31/04, "At the RNC, It's Popeye for President"). "With him, what you see is what you get."
The elder Mrs. Bush said she had avoided watching the news recently, instead diverting her attention to needlepoint and listening to books on tape, because the occasionally negative coverage "raises my blood pressure." She added that her husband, the former President, was an avid TV watcher -- a habit that had him cursing and occasionally throwing objects in their living room. "Imagine what it's like to hear terrible untruths about your family on TV," she said.
She told the congregants not to believe a word of it. "This man is a good man," she declared.
The number of women in leadership positions in the Bush Administration was also trumpeted. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Interior Secretary Gail Norton, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings all took the stage. "This President has had more female leaders than any other," said Doro Bush Koch. "And with Laura and the girls, he's surrounded by strong women at home, too."
The Bush twins Barbara and Jenna may be vocal influences at home, but at this event, they were literally mute. The only time the recent college graduates drew any attention to themselves was when Barbara took exception to Liz Cheney's comment that Vice-Presidential wife Lynn Cheney was the "world's best grandmother." That perked up Barbara, who started pointing at her grandmother and namesake -- leading Mrs. Cheney to say, "She's the world's best grandmother, too."
A fund-raising event that was invitation-only, "W is for Women" was preaching to the faithful. The First Lady will get her biggest chance to woo undecided women voters on Aug. 31. It's a huge opportunity for the Bush campaign. And if the election is tight and the President wins with a narrow margin, it could be because of a person who isn't listed on the ballot.
Starr is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau