Joining her husband in defense of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, Laura Bush today called her a "role model for young women around the country" and suggested that sexism was a "possible" reason for the heavy criticism of the nomination.

"I know Harriet well," the first lady said. "I know how accomplished she is. I know how many times she's broken the glass ceiling. . . . She's very deliberate and thoughtful and will bring dignity to wherever she goes, certainly the Supreme Court."

The president and Laura Bush commented on Miers during an appearance on NBC's Today show from Covington, La., where they participated in a home-building project with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.

Asked by host Matt Lauer if sexism might be playing a role in the Miers controversy, she said, "It's possible. I think that's possible. . . . I think people are not looking at her accomplishments."

President Bush repeated the themes of his earlier defenses of Miers, whom he named Oct. 3 to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"She is a brilliant person," he said of Miers. "Just because she hasn't served on the bench doesn't mean she can't be a great Supreme Court justice."

Miers, a longtime friend and aide to Bush in Texas, is currently White House counsel. Her appointment has infuriated many conservatives, who charge that Miers lacks the experience and the intellectual prowess to advance their cause on the Supreme Court.

On other matters, President Bush said the federal government will not seek to dictate terms for rebuilding the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast but would allow state and local officials to make key decisions. He rejoiced in what he said is a spirit of revival there.

"I think we've seen the spirits change. . . . Local people are beginning to realize there's hope," he said.

In response to the government's initially slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush said, "If I didn't respond well enough, I'm going to learn the lessons." The federal government's response to the second huge storm to slam the area, Rita, has gotten better reviews.

"The story will unfold. I mean, the facts of the story will come out over time, and the important thing is for federal, state and local governments to adjust and to respond," Bush said.

The president and his wife joined other volunteers, driving nails into a sheet of plywood with a hammer.

Bush rejected criticism from Democrats that his visits to the region -- this was his eighth -- were largely picture-taking opportunities for publicity and that his administration lacked a coherent reconstruction plan.

"I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild," he said. Bush said he had told C. Ray Nagin, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, over dinner the night before that "we will support the plan that you develop."