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The president’s ‘secret weapon’

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WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- She's never in a bad mood, says one member of her Secret Service detail.

She's "cordial," Robert Haugh says, putting away the silverware on the blue-and-white C-9 Air Force jet that has been home to the first lady and her 22-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, for the past few weeks.

"You can't ask for anything more," Mr. Haugh says of Laura Bush, who may prove to be the real "October surprise" of the 2004 presidential campaign.

She is described by President Bush as his "secret weapon" and by daughter Jenna as "a role model for women across the country."

Her chestnut hair perfectly coifed, her gray suede pumps unscuffed and understated, her pastel blue coat and paisley shawl comfortably stylish, the 58-year-old former schoolteacher has been deployed by the Bush campaign to do what she does best: Make undecided voters fall in love with her.

Take Jeanne Richter, a 77-year-old registered Democrat who is a resident of the Village at Manor Park, where Mrs. Bush made her last solo appearance before joining her husband for the last week of the campaign. Mrs. Richter, who said she was "wavering," is now leaning toward voting for Mr. Bush.

"She's seems to be a wonderful lady," the Wisconsin woman said.

Mrs. Richter says Mrs. Bush is a better first lady than Teresa Heinz Kerry would be. "No doubt about it in my mind. ... [Mrs. Bush] was absolutely wonderful, and I'm so happy I took the time to come down and hear her personally. Sometimes when you read things, that's one thing. It's informative, yes. But seeing her in person makes you think a little bit deeper."

The president's wife and daughters spent last week wooing voters like Mrs. Richter in their "W Stands For Women" tour, so named for the president's middle initial. An all-day trek through New Hampshire on Thursday was followed by a quick trip to Wisconsin, and then on to Ohio and Florida, visiting church suppers and firehouses.

"We've been all over the place this week," Jenna says in her Texas drawl. "We started out in Las Vegas on Sunday. Because of the change in time zones, Barbara and I were lying awake last night until 2 in the morning."

Mr. Bush joked last week that he had promised his daughters a camping trip, and it turned out to be the 2004 campaign instead. Wearing a vanilla embroidered coat by favorite designer Lela Rose, Jenna says, "We're exhausted."

The president has said he promised his wife when he proposed to her that she would never have to make a political speech, but as Jenna told a small rally of Republican women in New Hampshire, "Wrong family, mom."

In the past month, the first lady delivered 30 political speeches, mostly to women and seniors. And Mrs. Bush is enormously popular -- a Gallup poll showed her with a 74 percent approval rating, more than 20 percentage points better than her husband's rating.

The first lady stays on message: Tax relief. Childhood education. No military draft. The war on terrorism. Women starting their own small businesses. Nothing ruffles her regal bearing.

"She's a source of inspiration to countless women," says actress Angie Harmon, also stumping for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign. "I have such great respect for the job she's doing."

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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