- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

The attacks on Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush have been rough in recent days, but his wife, Laura, says she understood from the beginning that the campaign trail could be one vicious road.

"Of course, it hurts to have someone you love criticized unfairly … but the negative part is actually a very small part of the whole campaign," says Mrs. Bush, talking about her husband by cell phone Friday in an interview with The Washington Times, one of 12 such conversations before noon.

"It can get wilder," she allows, looking at the weeks and months ahead. "I know that."

For a former librarian who has shunned the spotlight and once feared public speaking, Mrs. Bush, 53, has become well-practiced in dealing with the media. She has emerged as an increasingly confident, even formidable political advocate for her husband.

She has visited 25 states over 92 days since the Texas governor's campaign for the Republican nomination for president officially began last summer. Her record for interviews given in a day stands at 32, her spokesman said.

As Mr. Bush rides high in the polls heading into the biggest bout of the primary season, today's Super Tuesday showdown in 13 states, the buzz continues to grow about his spouse of 22 years.

At schools, libraries, airports and auditoriums, Laura Bush has become a hot ticket. She frequently campaigns solo. Crowds turn out to glimpse the woman with piercing, cornflower blue eyes who could become the nation's next first lady.

"Her power is that she's genuine," spokesman Andrew Malcolm observes.

"I do think of myself as basically shy, but I do like to meet people," Mrs. Bush says in the phone interview on her way to Bangor, Maine, one of four states she would visit Friday.

The day began at about 6:30 a.m. with a bowl of raisin bran and ended about 10:30 p.m., when she joined her husband at a hotel in Buffalo, N.Y.

The intense personal scrutiny shifted her way that morning with a story in the New York Post recounting the details of a 1963 car accident that claimed the life of her high school boyfriend.

When she was 17, she drove her car through an intersection and slammed into his Jeep, which had no doors. The boy was thrown from the car, broke his neck and died instantly, the report said.

The grief from the wreck, Mrs. Bush told reporters in Rhode Island, remains.

"I know this as an adult, and even more as a parent, it was crushing … for the family involved, and for me as well," she said, before quickly turning the focus back to her husband.

Campaigning, while grueling, has been "energizing," Mrs. Bush says in the interview.

She and her husband try to exercise, eat healthy and get enough sleep. She likes to walk. He enjoys running and often works out on fitness machines when he can steal a spare moment away from speechmaking, handshaking and posing for pictures.

On campaign stops, Mrs. Bush likes to visit schools and read to children. Usually, she takes along a favorite book, "Officer Buckle and Gloria," the story of a police officer whose dog acts out safety tips. She also enjoys visiting adult-literacy centers, a cause she has championed in Texas.

On a visit to the Mercy Center in Bridgeport, Conn., a woman took her aside and whispered in her ear: "I just learned how to read."

"That was a powerful and moving moment for me," Mrs. Bush recalls in her soft West Texas drawl. "What George and I are reminded over and over is … the true strength of our country is our people. In every town, we see inspiring people and inspiring programs."

While Mr. Bush gets home only every two weeks or so, Mrs. Bush returns to the governor's mansion in Austin every three or four days to keep on eye on twin daughters Barbara and Jenna, 18, who will cast their first votes in the Texas primary a week from today.

Named after Mr. Bush's mother Barbara and Mrs. Bush's mother, Jenna Walsh, the teens attend public school and eagerly await college-acceptance letters. They are the center of a family life that Mrs. Bush tries hard to protect.

"We won't use them in any ads and we've been assured that they'll never have to speak to the press," Mrs. Bush told People magazine.

That doesn't mean the girls have been stymied. In fact, Mrs. Bush says, the public scrutiny of the nation often is much easier to weather than the warnings she and her husband regularly receive from their own in-home fashion police.

"When people ask me if I give George advice, I tell them I don't have to give him advice because our teen-age girls have taken care of that," Mrs. Bush says, laughing.

Their warning to mother: Lose the helmet hair.

"They say I use too much hair spray," Mrs. Bush says of her simple, side-parted bob. "They think my hair moves as a unit."

Her chestnut coif, which she styles herself while traveling, stands in stark contrast to the big-hair look favored by many of the oil-country trophy wives in her home state. And unlike many of them, she is not a Neiman-Marcus devotee.

"I like fashion and I have a lot of very nice clothes," says the 5-foot-5-inch Mrs. Bush, who has no favorite designer and wears soft, pastel suits. A lifelong bookworm, she'd rather read than shop.

Observers say the reserved Mrs. Bush is a near-perfect complement to her brash, outspoken husband, whose sense of humor she adores. A native Texan, she married Mr. Bush at age 31, a month after he proposed. Their honeymoon was spent campaigning for Congress.

"The best decision I ever made was to ask Laura Welch of Midland, Texas, to marry me," Mr. Bush likes to say.

Their relationship remains strong 22 years later: They hold hands. He hugs her close. They call each other "Bushie."

On New Year's Day, they rose early to catch the first sunrise of 2000, walking around the lake at their weekend home in Athens, Texas.

The couple's rare quiet times occur in the morning, when they drink coffee and read the paper in bed. They tend to be surrounded by three cats and a dog, Spot. The latter is the offspring of George and Barbara Bush's famous White House pooch, Millie.

Her popular mother-in-law has been careful not to step in to offer campaign advice, Mrs. Bush says. One early tip from the former first lady that she calls classy, however, was about meeting the spouses of the other candidates at presidential debates.

"She said, 'Laura, you be sure to be the first one to speak to all of them.' "

Despite the months of name-calling among former and current Republican candidates, she adds, the wives remain friendly with each other.

Faith and family are a "refuge" when spirits are low, Mrs. Bush says.

Her husband keeps in close contact with his father via the Internet. And, she says, the busy candidate phones their daughters every night.

Mrs. Bush calls her regular life as a stay-at-home mother both a "luxury" and a "privilege."

"This is what I wanted to do," she says of putting aside a career as an elementary school librarian and teacher.

Would she call herself a feminist?

"In the sense I believe in the strength and power of women, but I also believe in equal pay for equal work.

"I know who I am and I can take criticism of myself better than I can take criticism of my husband," she says.

His loss in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1, while disappointing, "made George a better candidate," she adds. "I think having a race in the primary [season] has made people pay more attention … .

"I think it's been good for all the candidates, and it's been good for democracy."

Mr. Bush's reputation as hot-headed is not accurate, his wife says. When he calls her to check in each night, he doesn't use the time to vent frustrations from the campaign trail.

"George got a reputation of having a fiery temper when he was working on his dad's campaign in Washington," she says. "[But] he doesn't have that kind of fiery temper."

Mrs. Bush likes her husband's chances of winning the party's nomination, and she predicts he'll stay far away from any personal mudslinging.

The nation "is ready for a fresh start," she says, echoing one of his standard lines. "I'm going to do everything I can do make sure George is elected."

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