BLUE BELL, Pa. - With the presidential candidates fighting for every last vote in the final weeks, the Bush campaign is now turning to its most lethal weapon: the mother.
Barbara Bush is taking no prisoners, hitting the campaign trail for her son Gov. George W. Bush with a pugnacious starring role in the "W is for Women" tour that began this week. With her New England flint sharpened and her white bouffant hairdo firmly in place, she is on a mission to convince female voters that her son is their man.
"I know about our son, what he's accomplished, what he believes in, what kind of person he is and what kind of president he'll be," the former first lady told a pompom-waving rally here. And, she said, she knows what the candidate is made of: "He's always been surrounded by strong women. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by birth."
Yesterday, Day Two of a three-day tour, featured several such women: the Bush matriarch, as well as the candidate's wife, Laura, testifying mostly to her husband's heart and character. Joining them yesterday was Lynne Cheney, the wife of Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney. Bush's foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, joined the women earlier this week as the road trip wound through the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
While the Texas governor has dominated the men's vote, he has consistently fallen behind his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, in polls among women. And so there were the women closest to him, Barbara and Laura Bush, in matching power suits, hoping to do something about it.
Together, they touted the candidate's plans for education, his concern for women's health, his plans for character education for children, his distaste for the bickering in Washington. Most of all, they spoke of the inner Bush - hoping to show off the guy they believe any woman could make a long-term commitment to.
"George W. Bush is someone you can count on every hour of the day," Laura Bush told about 200 supporters at a community college here. "Every day of the year."
Looking on was Barbara Bush, whose straight talk and grandmotherly charms have secured her a cult following since her days in the White House and made her the emotional focus of this media-heavy campaign swing. Republican women in souvenir T-shirts gathered in the school gym, pumped up by the "Rocky" theme, and roared as Cheney introduced the elder Mrs. Bush as perhaps "the most admired woman in the whole Western world."
For her part, Barbara Bush was holding nothing back.
The silver fox nipped at the news media. ("Depends on whether I like the question!" she said before deciding whether to respond to a reporter.)
She kept her daughter-in-law in line ("LAU-RA!" she called, when it was time to get moving).
And she cuddled up to voters with President George Bush-era nostalgia ("You're a point of light," she told a woman at a cancer center earlier in the day).
Occasionally, the woman famous for telling it like it is threw a zinger of her own. While Barbara Bush has largely avoided the campaign trail - she made an appearance in New Hampshire just before that state's primary - she could not help but chide her son's rival a bit once she got before a microphone.
"Al Gore is exaggerating again, this time on Social Security," she said as supporters waved signs reading "Bush is Da Man." "He's trying to scare old people like me. But it's not going to work this time, because we're smarter than that."
The day began with a stop at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where the women on the W Tour sported pink ribbon pins in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. After meeting with doctors, cancer patients and survivors, Laura Bush offered some assurances with dollar signs attached, promising that her husband would double the funding for the National Institutes of Health by 2003.
The candidate's wife told a breast cancer survivor about her own 82-year-old mother, who has also suffered from the disease and who underwent a mastectomy a year ago. Sitting before a quilt sewn by ovarian cancer survivors, the Bushes listened to the stories of women fighting the disease and offered moral support.
"Attagirl," Barbara Bush told each of them.
One survivor, Celine Hampson, said the meeting was powerful enough to cause her to reconsider the GOP candidate. Hampson, 38, a mother from nearby Warwick, said she had been leaning toward Gore but had second thoughts after meeting the Bushes.
Before the Bush women left, the center's staff had all but thrown them a party, gathering on a lawn to cheer them.
"That big applause was for you," Laura Bush told her mother-in-law, who had said she was feeling "feisty" after recovering from back surgery three weeks ago.
By afternoon, the W Tour motorcade had arrived at Montgomery County Community College, the heart of suburban soccer mom territory considered critical for a Bush victory in Pennsylvania. A high school band played a fight song while women in the crowd - many of them Republicans bused in from retirement homes - applauded the women's vision of W.
As voluble as the Bush women were, the one issue they clearly tried to avoid was abortion. Many suburban women favor abortion rights, and George W. Bush opposes abortions in most cases.
Laura Bush has not stated her position on the issue, but Barbara Bush is thought to support abortion rights, as she indicated yesterday.
"We have a party that has a big umbrella, and [in] our party you can speak on any issue and be accepted, and I'm very proud of that," Barbara Bush said when asked if she agreed with her son's position. "I agree with him on almost 99 percent of things, and shortly I'm going to agree with him on 100 if people don't stop bringing up that subject."
The Bushes kept such personal opinions to a minimum, and most in the crowds did not seem to mind. They seemed to want only to bond with the Bush matriarch -and the daughter-in-law some see as a silver fox in training.
"Barbara can relate to every woman, she's not like the first lady, she's one of us," said Maureen Gorman, 51, who brought her mother-in-law. "I loved seeing them here today. It made me think the country needs the Bushes again."