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Mrs. Bush begins every appearance with a slight nod to someone in the crowd, and makes eye contact. When Jenna introduces her mother at a rally— repeating the same jokes she told two hours earlier at a previous stop — the first lady laughs as if it’s the first time she’s heard it.

She is a hugger, a hand-holder and a reader. While Jenna scans the newspapers, chews gum or fiddles with her Blackberry on the campaign plane, her mother catches up on paperwork and nibbles apples. She usually does her own hair, unless there’s a hairdresser around, and prefers simple salads and sandwiches and bottled water on the plane. Tonight is lasagna night. She keeps her wardrobe in blue garment bags, and keeps her personal opinions to herself.

“This last leg of the campaign is so crucial,” says 24-year-old Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, who has taken a day off from her Harvard Law School studies to spend the day campaigning with the first lady. “I think [Mrs. Bush is] definitely an asset. She could definitely make a difference.”

The first lady — who says she hates it when police use their sirens in her motorcades because she thinks it bothers other drivers — gets her own sugar for coffee at Jack’s coffee shop in New London, Wis., where supporters have been waiting 40 minutes, chanting “Four More Years.”

Inside the shop, Mrs. Bush responds without anger to Mrs. Kerry’s statement that the first lady, despite years of teaching and working as a librarian and raising two daughters, “never had a real job.”

Saying it “didn’t hurt” her feelings, she said Mrs. Kerry “apologized … I know how tough it is. And, actually, I know those trick questions.”

While the first lady turned the other cheek to Mrs. Kerry’s remark, Miss Harold says she thought the remark was catty and indicative “of how out of touch [Mrs. Kerry] may be with the way real people live.”

Mrs. Bush was “probably more disappointed for other women whose choices are demeaned by [Mrs. Kerry’s] remarks,” said Kitty Sununu, the 39-year-old wife of New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu and mother of three who joined the first lady’s bus tour.

Mrs. Kerry’s “real job” remark apparently angered women like Kristy Donaghy, a 41-year-old mother of two from Nashua, N.H., who held up a sign reading, “I Never Had a Real Job Either — I’m a Mom + Teacher.”

The first daughters, meanwhile, are working hard to be taken more seriously, especially after Jenna was photographed sticking her tongue out at the White House press corps.

“The strongest they’ve been is on the road,” said ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton. “It’s been a very gradual coming out of their shells. There’s still a little bit of the giggle there, but they’re much stronger than they were.”

Can the Bush women make a difference Nov. 2? Marilyn Prell, a 59-year-old Kerry supporter, sat in a bar watching the first lady’s motorcade leave town.

“She doesn’t hurt.”

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