- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

First lady Laura Bush has started taking a more aggressive role in her husband’s re-election campaign, vigorously defending administration policies as she hits the road on President Bush’s behalf.

Mrs. Bush last week called Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe a liar for his accusation that Mr. Bush was “AWOL” — absent without official leave — from his Air National Guard duty in Alabama in the early 1970s. She said Democrats are engaging in a “witch hunt” against her husband.

“I don’t think it’s fair to really lie about allegations about someone, like the Democratic national chairman did,” Mrs. Bush told ABC News in an interview.

Appearing Thursday at the Advanced Technologies Academy in Las Vegas, Mrs. Bush defended the Patriot Act — a law many Democrats say allows the administration to infringe civil liberties — as “very important in the fight against terrorism.”

Mrs. Bush blamed persistent media interest in her husband’s National Guard record on “the attacks by all of the [Democratic] candidates,” and said the president’s performance as commander in chief matters more.

“Because of his decisions and because of the actions of our country, little girls are going to school in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives,” she said. “And the people of Iraq are free from the torture and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. So I think what [Democrats are] trying to do is to divert attention from how successful my husband, and our country, has actually been.”

Gordon Johndroe, the first lady’s spokesman, said Mrs. Bush has been one of her husband’s best political assets since his first run for public office in 1978.

“He promised her then that she wouldn’t have to give speeches, but she’s a very good speaker,” Mr. Johndroe said.

She’s also a very good fund-raiser, drumming up $5 million for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign so far.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, weeks ago sent out his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to campaign on his behalf. This week, Mrs. Kerry visited Idaho and Utah, which hold primaries today, and will talk to farmers today in California, the biggest prize of the 10-state March 2 “Super Tuesday” primaries.

Mrs. Kerry — who has a reputation for using blunt language — has been aggressive from the start. Sunday in Ohio, Mrs. Kerry accused the Bush administration of being the source of a higher level of “ugliness” than she has ever seen in politics.

“More than anything else, this country needs an end to cynicism,” Mrs. Kerry said. “The enemy of democracy is cynicism.”

Mrs. Bush has enjoyed high approval ratings since her husband took office in January 2001. A Harris Interactive Poll last summer showed 70 percent gave her high marks for the job she has done as first lady.

Taking on a higher political profile has both benefits and risks for Mrs. Bush.

“The fact that she’s out on the stump, there is a certain freshness to it,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. “We’re introduced to her in that role for the first time. But she has made some sharper-edged political comments. Those might be double-edged.”

Democratic consultant Donna Brazile said Mrs. Bush’s positive press coverage is unfair compared with how Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was treated when she campaigned for her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

“In my opinion, there has been and will always be a double standard,” Miss Brazile said. “I have no problem with Mrs. Bush stepping into the political fray. Just remember, what goes around comes back around. Trust me, I know from my own experience in taking on the Bush family years ago. They will defend their family and then some.”

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