Ashley stole the show. With her red and white ruffled party dress, inch-long pigtails and precious waddle, she played a solid game of catch with First Lady Barbara Bush yesterday in front of a very attentive press corps. She mugged for the cameras like a pro. Ashley is only 20 months old and the subject of enormous attention because she has tested positive for the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. Barbara Bush spent nearly an hour yesterday morning at Ashley's home, otherwise known as Grandma's House, one of the nation's first residences created to care for AIDS-infected infants. Located near Logan Circle, the meticulously maintained Victorian town house has room for four children, who are placed there through D.C. Social Services. It is funded through private and city funds. Some parents of the children living there have called periodically, but only two grandparents have taken an active role. According to home officials, it provides care for children who are "abandoned, abused or neglected." While none of the children actually has AIDS, a spokesman for the home said they were all in fragile health. Mrs. Bush cradled an infant, kissed a toddler and hugged an adult AIDS victim to demonstrate a message: "You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus" without hurting yourself, she said. "There is a need for compassion." "You can't imagine what one hug from the first lady is worth," said Jim Graham, administrator of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a District-based facility that treats AIDS patients, gives tests for the virus and offers counseling. "We've had so much trouble with all the talk about the dangers of personal contact. Here, the first lady isn't afraid -- and that's worth more than a thousand public service announcements." The first lady arrived about 10:30 a.m. to be briefed privately by the home's administrators, as well as by Graham and other national and local individuals actively involved with AIDS. Among the points emphasized to the first lady: the need for more volunteers and public awareness. Anna Perez, press aide to Mrs. Bush, pulled no punches about why the first lady was there. "One of the reasons she's here is because she hoped you guys {the press} would follow her. You're the messengers. She wants to send a very positive and powerful message that you can help." After the briefing, Mrs. Bush settled down on the floor, where she played with Ashley, Billy, 21 months, and Korea, 20 months. Donovan, five months, took a little snooze at the time. She was given a tour of the house by Debbie Tate, founder of Terrific Inc., which operates the home, and by her sister Joan McCarley, the director of Grandma's House. The children are cared for round the clock by paid staff and volunteers. "So what you're talking about is the need for people to care, for friends to come forward ... for housing?" the first lady asked her hosts. Outside, Mrs. Bush also said she'd like "to make a big push for not doing drugs. Many of those who test positive {for the AIDS virus} are the children of intravenous-drug users -- and that's terrible." Dr. Burton Lee, the physician-designate to the president, escorted Mrs. Bush. "We are doing all we can do from the research point of view," he said. "The system is saturated. We can't do anything about the disease now -- so we have to teach people how not to get it." Not surprisingly, the first lady demurred when asked about the adequacy of government funding in social services. "I don't fool around with the federal government -- I leave that to George Bush," she said. "If you ask me about any of the projects I am interested in, I am going to say there's not enough money. But there is a deficit, so I leave that to George Bush." Lou Tesconi, director of Damien Ministries, a Catholic group that runs two houses in the District for AIDS patients, and himself an AIDS victim who also briefed Mrs. Bush, articulated one possible liability with yesterday's visit. "I'm afraid that it may send a message that babies are innocent and can be helped," he says, "but that the rest of us aren't." Still, Tesconi, 39, seemed to appreciate Mrs. Bush's gesture. "I told her it would certainly help to get a collective hug from the first lady," he said. And sure enough, he got one -- as the cameras clicked away.