You come here to Sin City, with its slots in the airports and its sexpots beckoning on every bus-bench ad, you get a floor-show welcome, even as a first lady admired for gentility.
Before her first solo rally of what she has come to call, a little wistfully, "our last campaign," Laura Bush got a warm-up Tuesday from the Palo Verde High School Choir, with dancing singers changing costumes so frequently they seemed to be hoping "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul secretly watches C-SPAN. One of their numbers was "Swing Dancing," performed perhaps in honor of this swing state, in presidential play with its five electoral votes.
Then came a man who could have been wearing a Wayne Newton mask, with that spray-tanned face and jet-black hair, except he was Wayne Newton, heralding the wife of President Bush as "this gorgeous lady." He loosened up the crowd with a long joke about a surgeon who performs a miracle, stitching back together what's left of accident victims, only "a horse's butt and a man's mouth," creating -- and here Newton paused for effect -- "that guy [who] is running for the Democratic nomination for president."
That really got them whooping it up here in the performing arts center of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It made for a hard act to follow.
In other introductory remarks, Lynette Boggs McDonald, a Clark County commissioner, commended the first lady as a woman who has "brought back dignity and grace to the White House. She has no interest in seeking her own headlines or making policy," an assertion that brought the crowd of about 1,000 to its feet with wild cheers. Laura Welch Bush is no Teresa Heinz Kerry or Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to listen to this audience, that is exactly what people love about her.
And here was one man's reaction: "I know nothing about her," said Lawrence Larmore, a computer science professor at the university, attending the rally on his campus. "She's just the wife of the president. She could become a Democrat, and I'd still vote for the president."
Once, decades ago, she was. Tuesday, Laura Bush emerged on the stump as the most intimate observer of the very qualities that are her husband's strongest positives for his supporters -- his steady resolve in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and his war against terror, even as, back in Washington, his administration struggles against the sense that the Iraqi occupation might be lurching toward failure.
"I want you to know about his positive agenda," Mrs. Bush said, trim in a top-stitched denim suit and black slingbacks. "I know that you see what I see. The president is a steady leader. He is hopeful about the future because he has tremendous confidence in the American people. He has a good and compassionate heart. I've known George Bush for nearly 30 years, and I've found that for every second of our time in the White House, that the president has the courage and the character to meet the demands of this time."
The president's approval ratings are at the lowest in his presidency -- in the mid-forties -- and a Gallup poll of last week found that 58 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way he is handling the war in Iraq. Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for the campaign, dismissed with a laugh the notion that Mrs. Bush's first outing came as a result of this pasting in the polls.
University officials said they had been contacted for the first time two weeks ago by campaign officials seeking to rent the auditorium for the first lady's visit. "We feel fortunate to have whatever events she agrees to do," said Devenish. "When our focus was involved in raising resources, she was helpful. Now we have shifted to getting our message out."
In her remarks, Mrs. Bush touted the administration's tax relief package, crediting it as the engine of the "fastest economic growth in 20 years." She talked up the education reform effort of the No Child Left Behind Act, Americans' talent for "compassion and ingenuity" and heralded her husband's foreign policy initiatives, which she said had allowed women and girls to walk freely in Afghanistan and had liberated millions of people in Iraq. While she touched briefly on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the first lady used this reference to emphasize that "the pictures we saw recently do not reflect the character of our troops, who have conducted themselves with honor and compassion."
A day after the president of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated by a suicide bomber right at the entrance to the highly secured Green Zone, only 43 days before the United States is determined to turn power of government over to the Iraqi people, Bush hinted that the media is not presenting a true picture of gains made in that country. Troops, she said, "have rebuilt over 1,000 schools" in the country.
In the president's stump speeches during his bus tour of four other swing states two weeks ago, he consistently told his audiences that one of the best reasons to reelect him is to ensure his wife is first lady for another four years. It's the biggest applause line every time.
But as a campaigner, Mrs. Bush has always been subtle rather than direct, implicit rather than overt. And Tuesday, speaking to a mostly white crowd with a more multihued group carefully arrayed behind her on a stage decorated with a floor-to-ceiling American flag, the first lady made no mention by name or inference of Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Nor did she mention her own accomplishments in 31/2 years in the East Wing, where she has adopted education, women's health and historic preservation as her mission.
"For the president, the attributes that remain most potent for him are steadiness and consistency," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. "And to him as a family man, Laura Bush can add an extra ray through which to view him. And those attributes are shared by her. She is, to put it one way, very regular."
The notion floated by some Republican strategists that Laura Bush is a "secret weapon" is dismissed by Devenish, who instead describes the first lady as "an open weapon." While the campaign unveiled an ad starring Laura Bush on education to several female-oriented Web sites and cable channels, "there is a misperception that we use her in a targeted fashion," said Devenish. "Her appeal is universal," because "she has an extraordinary and unique perspective in the decision-making of the president at a truly incredible time in our country. She is able to speak with the utmost clarity about his leading the country in the days and weeks after 9/11."
But are those insights, exactly? Of the two of them, Mrs. Bush always has been more cautious about illuminating how or what she thinks. On the subject of abortion, she is on record once and only once in the entire term as saying she does not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Asked about gay marriage, she said two months ago that she knows "some people find it very, very shocking," carefully refusing to say whether she includes herself in the very shocked category or not. Asked about a constitutional amendment, she said she thought the push for an amendment would generate a debate that the American people need to have.
Asked for her personal view, she quickly said, "I think I won't tell you my personal view."
On the charged subject of reproductive rights, she has said she supports programs that promote sexual abstinence along with contraception.
Such cautious statements can make Mrs. Bush appear more moderate in her social views, and campaign officials hope she can reach across the Republicans' traditional gender gap to wavering female voters, who are concerned that their children grow up in a safe world. Women also represent a growing group of small-business owners, and Mrs. Bush appealed to them in her speech Tuesday.
"I love her," said one of those at Tuesday's rally, Edna Orr, 70, a longtime Republican activist. "She's a lady. She has poise, grace and intelligence." Second-grade teacher Julie Davenport, 34, called the first lady "very sweet." But Mrs. Bush has a sharp edge she can unsheath when she perceives her husband to be under attack.
When controversy erupted a few months ago over his service in the National Guard, Mrs. Bush said she knew her husband had completed his duty, which occurred in the years before she met him, "well, because he told me he was" serving. She then accused Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe of lying about Bush's service.
"I don't think it's fair to really lie about allegations about someone like the Democratic national chairman did," she told ABC News's Terry Moran, before amending, "Well, he made it up, I guess I should say." To the Associated Press, she said the guard duty flap was a "political, you know, witch hunt, actually, on the part of the Democrats."
There was none that Tuesday, as she talked of "mah husband" and America being "stronger, safer and better" in the soft, honeyed voice of her native West Texas. After the rally, she headed off to the home of casino megamillionaire Steve Wynn and his wife, Elaine, for a small dinner of 20, among the original Picassos in the Wynn mansion, which was expected to raise $600,000 for the get-out-the-vote effort of the Republican National Committee.
Wednesday she appears on the "Tonight" show, after more rallies for her husband, this woman who once said she would be content to stay home and read and putter in the garden.