HOPKINTON, N.H., Oct. 21 -- The red-white-and-blue buses still say "Bush-Cheney '04: A Safer World, a More Hopeful America," but the country music is softer, so is the stage lighting, and the attacks are more ladylike.
First lady Laura Bush on Thursday began her last solo swing of what she calls her last campaign, bringing her husband's message of strength and optimism to a state he won in 2000 that he is in danger of losing to John F. Kerry in 12 days.
The reprimands of Kerry are subtler than in the speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, which are high-decibel in volume and rhetoric. But they are there.
"The president looks forward to medical breakthroughs that may arrive through stem cell research," she said at the opera house in Lebanon, N.H. "You might not realize that, because people try to distort his record."
More sharply, a few sentences later, she said, "Some people are trying to scare America's seniors about Social Security."
And as she wrapped up, a new line for this tour that could have come from the vice president, "Voters will face a choice between an America that is uncertain in the face of danger, or an America that takes decisive action to defeat terror and to spread liberty."
The beginning of the end looked a lot like the beginning of Bush's first presidential race in 1999: Laura Bush, smiling in a chaotic coffee shop in New Hampshire, making a fuss over choosing her blend, then pouring her own cream. New Hampshire is home to lots of independent voters, and the first lady brought Cindy McCain -- wife of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who beat Bush in the New Hampshire primary of 2000 -- along on her bus trip Thursday. "A few years ago, Cindy and I were on different buses -- and her bus nearly knocked ours off the road," Laura Bush said at a "W Stands for Women" rally at Hopkinton Town Hall.
Last time the first lady typically traveled with her husband, but this time the campaign recognized her as a separate asset -- one with an approval rating of about 80 percent, compared with the 50 he polls on a good day. So Laura Bush hit the campaign trail solo back in June 2003 and since then has traveled to 33 states -- battlegrounds, plus states with cities big enough for large fundraising events. She raised $5.5 million for the campaign and headlined 25 rallies, 15 luncheons, 13 evening receptions and 12 dinners. She has also given 13 campaign speeches, including several in the "W Stands for Women" series, and made countless television appearances.
Her value to the ticket has been underscored by the occasional controversies around statements by Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who on Wednesday apologized for telling USA Today that she does not know whether Laura Bush -- who has a master's degree in library science -- has ever had "a real job."
"It doesn't matter to me," Laura Bush said. "It didn't hurt my feelings. It was perfectly all right, and she apologized. But she didn't even really need to apologize. I know how tough it is. And actually, I know those trick questions, too." Later, she said in an interview , "I think she was trying to talk about herself and not about me -- I really do."
The Bush twins have also kept up an active schedule. On Thursday, Jenna came along to introduce her mother and to hand out postcards of Air Force One and the White House pets to children at each stop.
Later, Jenna and her mother picked out two pumpkins for the White House at a photogenic cider-and-produce stand that had the only-in-New-Hampshire sign, "All Politicians Welcome."
The trip drew very few Kerry-Edwards protesters. One carried a red sign saying "Fire the Liar."
Laura Bush's schedule is one of the few overt ways that the Bush campaign has worked to reach swing voters, and she has cagily left the impression that she is more moderate than her husband on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues. During an interview in the back of her campaign bus as it rolled through the oranges and browns of New England fall, she left no doubt there are differences, without spelling them out.
"I understand why he has the opinions he has. He understands why I have the opinions I have," she said. "But we don't argue issues -- we've been married too long to spend a lot of time arguing issues. Besides that, we have an opponent to argue the issues."
But on Iraq, her message is as unyielding as her husband's. "Building a democracy is not easy," she said. "But we know it's right."
The first lady said she and her husband would be "devastated, of course" if they lost, but she is looking ahead to her plans to expand the native-grass restoration program at the ranch in Crawford. She said she had not kept a journal and is not sure about writing a book.
The first lady said that in a second term, she would build on her education work by focusing on children -- and specifically boys -- through such programs like one that puts troubled youths in charge of raising animals.
At the rostrum of a twilight rally in a hangar in Nashua, she joked about how nice it is to have her daughters on the campaign trail to tell her how much they love her -- "in public, no less." On Friday in Ohio, she will join her husband for the rest of the campaign.