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Bush Playing the First Lady Card

Campaign: Candidate's team sends mother, wife for an assault on the gender gap. Laura Bush turns tables, asking why male voters shy from Gore.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Introduced to a roaring crowd as the "most admired woman in the United States," former First Lady Barbara Bush hit the campaign trail Wednesday to help her son woo the female voters who have been slow to embrace the Republican candidate.

Kicking off a bus tour called "W Stands for Women"--a reference to George W. Bush's middle initial--the stately 75-year-old with the famous halo of silver hair was joined by her son's wife, Laura Bush, and Lynne Cheney, the wife of vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney.

"Laura for first lady!" one supporter shouted as the campaign caravan arrived in Lansing, Mich. After a beat, she added another cheer: "And Barbara for first momma!"

Although George W. Bush's famous parents have made appearances at fund-raisers and an occasional rally, this bus tour of three states is by far the highest-profile familial stumping of the campaign.

Mothers, wives and daughters were the hallmark of the day, both in tone and target. Speaking at a Michigan history museum on the banks of the Grand River, Barbara Bush nodded to her fellow female speakers, a gallery of local and state female leaders assembled on stage and the women in the audience and said, "Truly this is the most powerful political group in this country."

The wives of Democratic contenders Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman have also been on the campaign trail. Tipper Gore watched as her husband campaigned in Des Moines on Wednesday and also joined him in paying a condolence call in St. Louis to the widow of Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri, who died this week in a plane crash.

Hadassah Lieberman appeared at the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica on Wednesday with leaders of the center and actor David Schwimmer of NBC's hit sitcom "Friends," who has done public service announcements on the subject of rape.

Democrats and Republicans also have concentrated heavily on Michigan, and Grand Rapids is among the top 10 target cities for campaign television ads, a testament to the tightness of the race here. And the tour of Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law shows how Bush, who enjoys a sizable lead in polls of male voters, is seeking to shape a more favorable persona among women, who tend to favor Gore.

"The country is learning that George W. Bush is a warm and funny and decent and loving man," Laura Bush said, citing his debate performances and appearances on television programs such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Later, answering reporter questions, she said the media coverage of her husband's lagging numbers with women is wrongheaded. She said the more interesting question is why Gore is faring poorly with male voters. She also said female voters are increasingly turning to the Republican candidate.

"The gender gap is closing, more women are supporting George W. Bush and I suspect by Nov. 7, George will get a large percentage of women," she said at a news conference staged across from a leafy Lansing playground.

The prospective first lady--a former school librarian and teacher--spoke at length about her husband's emphasis on education and helping families make ends meet, drumbeat topics that drew loud cheers from the crowd dominated by women and young people. The loudest, though, were reserved for Barbara Bush.

Wearing her trademark pearls and speaking in clear, crisp tones, the former first lady told jokes (she said she gave her son unconditional love and "in return, he gave me white hair") and offered touching expressions of affection for her daughter-in-law.

"She will be the most beloved first lady ever," Barbara Bush said of Laura Bush.

In Grand Rapids, the crowd at the Van Andel Museum Center was predominantly women, many of them with children in tow. They seemed to delight in Barbara Bush's humor, which was largely about her family and the role of women in society.

"You know what would have happened if it had been three wise women?" she asked, setting up a Biblical joke. "They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, they would have helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts."

Later, she said she would only hit the campaign trail in short, concentrated trips because of the rigors of travel. She also said watching Bush's bid for president has been "much harder" than her husband's campaigns because of her motherly protective instinct.

Her husband and two sons have combined for 14 election campaigns through the years, but her voice still rose when asked whether she gets upset by campaign attacks on her brood. "I am," she said, "fiercely loyal."

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