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Barbara Bush is not-so-secret weapon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOUSTON -- As is her way, Barbara Bush has tried to play down the significance of the speech she will deliver to the Republican convention tonight, calling it no big deal, a ho-hummer, "sort of a little Mighty Mouse speech."

But Mighty Mouse, albeit a polite little mouse, always comes to save the day.

As the first lady steps to the podium tonight, she does so as the embodiment of the "family values" her husband's campaign has trumpeted, as the most popular woman in America, as Everymom and grandmom, and ultimately, the Bush camp hopes, as the president's political lifeline.

The GOP's not-so-secret weapon has come a long way since her days as a Houston housewife fighting the jitters before giving a speech to her garden club.

In her four years at the White House, Mrs. Bush, 67, has emerged as that rarest of species in Washington -- someone who is at once immensely popular and, although she would tell you otherwise, immensely political and influential.

Until recently, the public has viewed the first lady through a soft-focus lens; the folksy fake pearls and endearing size 14 dress have played well with Americans, especially in comparison with her harder-edged predecessor, Nancy Reagan, and the outspoken woman who would like to be her successor, Hillary Clinton.

She has skillfully avoided any discussion of issues and has made it clear that, if she has any influence on her husband's political decisions, no one would ever know.

But in the last several months, that political savvy and influence -- usually kept vacuum-packed in the private quarters of the executive mansion -- have been underscored. Recent magazine articles, far from the glowing grandmotherly valentines that marked her early tenure at the White House, have described her as "fiercely calculating," domineering, "a stealth-Nancy in Keds."

And even Mrs. Bush, herself, in her final trek out on the campaign trail, has been displaying a sharper and more openly partisan side, freely dumping on the media, the Democratic candidate, even the chairman of her own party, finally speaking out about her own personal feelings on the subject of abortion and, of course, making a prime-time address here tonight.

In some ways, her extreme popularity -- she has received more mail than any first lady in history -- has given her the freedom to reveal a little more of herself. "People give her a lot of room because they like her," says Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan and Mr. Bush.

But in other ways, her recent outspokenness is the product of 12 years in Washington in which she has learned the game, and language, of politics as well as anyone.

"She doesn't make any, or many, mistakes when it comes to her role," says Vic Gold, a close friend of the Bushes and an adviser to the president.

But while she is clearly going further in defining her own views than ever before, she still lapses into her trademark self-deprecation.

When asked recently how she explained her enduring popularity in light of her husband's fall from grace, she said, "I make no decisions. I don't have to say 'no' to anybody. I can go blindly on my own dumb way and have a good time and be helpful. Nobody's jealous of me. Look at me. Who would be?"

Beneath the modesty, however, is a spouse "more political than Nancy Reagan," says Carl Anthony, author of "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power."

"She's conscious of which senators and congressmen support her husband and which are voting against him. She knows who's making what remarks to the press. And in the small and privileged world of people in politics, she lets people know that she knows," Mr. Anthony says.

Last week, she excluded from a scheduled interview session a reporter from the New York Post, the paper that heralded "The Bush Affair" on its front page. Son George once remarked that those who cross his mother risk incurring "the wrath of the Silver Fox."

There is, in fact, a toughness about Mrs. Bush, a quality some close to her call "a flintiness."

"Barbara is the type of person you don't really want to displease," says Mr. Gold, adding that the first lady will let people know in a "gloved response" when they've offended.

But it is the softer side, the exquisite manners and the compassion, that Mrs. Bush is most identified with and that's been such an asset to the administration -- the frequent visits to hospitals and soup kitchens, the appearances hugging AIDS babies, reading to pre-schoolers and talking to unwed mothers.

Even on a personal level, many credit Mrs. Bush with humanizing her husband, bearing some of the couple's burdens and looking after matters of friendly protocol.

Mr. Gold recalls coming down with flu at the 1984 GOP convention and watching from his hotel room the then-vice president make his acceptance speech -- a speech he helped craft. After the address, the Bushes dropped in on their ailing friend. "I knew whose idea it was," Mr. Gold says. "She looks after that aspect. He's not thoughtless; he just moves awfully fast."

If she spends any time with her spouse in the next two months, it will, no doubt, be on the campaign trail -- for one last go round, one last political battle. "I expect her to be out campaigning six days a week, if not seven," says Ms. Tate.

The first lady has no complaints. All she ever wanted to be, she has said, was George Bush's wife and helper.

And the Bush camp, for its part, has no complaints. With favorable ratings light years ahead of her husband's, Mrs. Bush is the figure the campaign team will put as far out front as possible -- as it does tonight -- and as often as possible.

"She's one of the best things we have going for us," says Bush media adviser Mike Murphy. "A week from today, when people think back to the convention, they'll remember two things: his speech and her speech."

Few GOP strategists believe voters will flock to Mr. Bush's corner solely because they like his wife -- even though a campaign button here says "Vote for Barbara's husband in '92" -- but they're hoping her Astrodome appearance will act as a sort of wake-up call to convention audiences, prompting them to give her husband a second look, perhaps a second chance.

"She can be incredibly influential in setting the right tone and helping people understand who George Bush is as a person," says Ms. Tate. "It all adds to the image that helps people make a decision."

At this game, Mrs. Bush appears to have honed a masterly swing -- and her husband has not found any better player.

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