Laura Bush has heard enough Teresa questions.
"Every interview," the first lady says, shaking her head when asked how often she's being queried on her outspoken counterpart, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.
"It was the last question I got from the St. Paul reporter at the last event," Mrs. Bush says. She got Teresa questions from reporters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan on Monday, and in Wisconsin and Minnesota Tuesday. And there's still Iowa left to go before Mrs. Bush wraps up her two-day tour of scripted sweetness and devotion to George W. Bush -- in other words, her "I'm Not Teresa Tour."
Mrs. Bush is sitting in the back of a black Suburban en route to the St. Cloud, Minn., airport. She has just finished telling the workers at Gruber's Quilt Shop how great they are at making quilts and how great her husband is at being president.
When asked (and asked again) about Heinz Kerry, it is inevitably in the context of Heinz Kerry's recent hits of unintentional news, such as when she told a reporter to "shove it" or said that hecklers chanting "four more years" wanted "four more years of hell."
Mrs. Bush always offers some gracious variation on how she understands what Heinz Kerry is going through. Public life can get tense at times. "She and I are actually in the same boat," she says. "I'm sure we have empathy for each other."
First ladies seem to be publicly defined in relation to one another. Is a first lady or prospective first lady like Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan? It's like descriptions of hail -- is it the size of a marble or a golf ball? -- as if first ladies exist as some kind of environmental phenomenon that come in a handful of predetermined sizes.
"Back four years ago, I always got the question, 'Are you going to be like Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush?' " Mrs. Bush says, waving out the window to a group of supporters holding signs that read "W stands for Women." She says she believes that the American public actually has broad and nuanced perceptions of first ladies. But the media are inclined to use a shorthand.
"It's easier to put people in a box, let it be either/or," she says. "The fact is, all of the women who have been married to presidents have been much more complicated or complex than people perceive."
Is Mrs. Bush more complicated and complex than her public image?
"Sure," she says, and leaves it at that.
Either way, Heinz Kerry is much more likely to be called "complex" or "complicated," for better or -- at Laura Bush's campaign events -- for worse.
"I prefer Laura to someone who can say 'shove it' in five different languages," says Patricia Ott, of Southampton, Pa. She is holding a homemade "Laura Is a Lady" sign Monday outside the Sheraton in Langhorne, Pa., where Mrs. Bush just accepted the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Medical Society's political action committee on behalf of her husband.
You can finish a lot of sentences about Laura Bush with the words "on behalf of her husband," just as Mrs. Bush herself will begin a lot of her sentences with "President Bush plans to," "I'm pleased George Bush is committed to" and "I'm proud of my husband because -- "
Mrs. Bush doesn't talk about whether she's had Botox treatments or signed a prenuptial agreement -- both among Heinz Kerry's greatest hits. For that matter, Mrs. Bush will rarely discuss herself at any great length beyond how it relates to her role as the president's soul mate, best friend and chief character witness. "I'm here to talk about George Bush," she says as a mantra, and strenuously avoids mentioning John Kerry by name.
Her adoring audiences rarely mention Kerry, either. They are far more likely to mention his wife, which makes for a slightly weird dynamic.
Unseen but oft-invoked, Heinz Kerry elicits strong and at times nasty reactions. "Telling someone to shove it in public is inappropriate in my view," says Helene Hartman, of Yardley, Pa. She supports Laura Bush because she supports her husband and, more than that, she "brings a level of dignity and composure to the role of first lady."
"I thought Mrs. Kerry talked mainly about herself and not her husband and I didn't like that," says Alison Rasmus of Heinz Kerry's speech at the Democratic convention last month. Rasmus, a Republican, like most of the people who attend Mrs. Bush's carefully screened events, is in a Toledo hotel to give a "warm Lucas County welcome to Mrs. Laura Bush."
To many admirers of Laura Bush, Heinz Kerry is viewed as being outsize to the point of distraction. The Bush-Cheney campaign seems acutely aware of this sentiment. Mrs. Bush visited six midwestern battleground states over a 36-hour period on Monday and Tuesday, speaking in cookie-cutter hotel ballrooms, in cookie-cutter phrases, in cookie-cutter suburbs and exurbs of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Detroit, among other stops. (Campaign officials say that Mrs. Bush's heavy schedule was set well in advance and had nothing to do with Heinz Kerry's recent headlines.)
In Langhorne, Mrs. Bush comes as close as she ever will to making political waves. On the three-year anniversary of her husband's decision to ban federal funding for research on new lines of stem cells, Mrs. Bush says that opponents of the president's policy are giving "false hope" to people whose loved ones are suffering from diseases that could conceivably be cured with help from studying such cells. She is interrupted several times by applause from the crowd of 300 medical professionals, several of whom wear white lab coats even though they're in a Sheraton function room.
A few hours later, Mrs. Bush is at a Radisson in Toledo, talking to a group of female small-business owners, dozens of whom are grinning behind her on the stage. She talks of President Bush's compassion, how he shares "our values" and how his tax policies have been a particular boon to women entrepreneurs. As she often does, Mrs. Bush notes that a woman -- Condoleezza Rice -- is her husband's chief adviser on national security and that another woman -- Margaret Spellings -- is his chief domestic policy adviser.
"That means that in this White House, women are in charge of just about everything abroad and everything at home," Mrs. Bush says. "And that sounds about right to me." She smiles sweetly, and the crowd laughs and Mrs. Bush moves on to more testimony about President Bush.
On the way to the Toledo airport, Mrs. Bush will make a "spontaneous" stop at a flag store. She will tell 1,200 supporters at a Boys and Girls Club in Royal Oak, Mich., that the president understands their values.
And she will get through an entire 20-minute interview on the way to the St. Cloud airport without being asked once what she thinks of Teresa Heinz Kerry, a woman she has never met.
"Very good," the first lady says, commending the reporter on his restraint. " 'Cause I wouldn't have really told you."