NEW YORK -- Laura Bush smiled gamely for the news cameras as she took the controls of a quilting machine at a shop in Waite Park, Minn., and started stitching.
She was on a campaign visit to Gruber's Quilt Shop, in the middle of a presidential battleground state, to promote her husband's economic policies in a fittingly ladylike way -- by showing her domestic side at a small business owned and run by women.
What the pictures didn't show was that Laura Bush, 57, the former schoolteacher who has built a reputation as a quintessentially traditional first lady, wasn't quilting at all. The machine had run out of thread. She was smoothly stitching her way through a perfect photo opportunity as if nothing were wrong.
By now, 3 1/2 years into her husband's presidency and in the thick of his re-election bid, she has learned her way around a staged campaign shot.
As President Bush battles for electoral advantage, his wife has emerged, in her understated way, as a key surrogate on the campaign trail. Radiating graceful calm amid the rancorous turmoil of a close presidential race, Laura Bush -- who polls show is far more popular than her husband -- is uniquely positioned to soften the image of the wartime president.
She will set out to do so tonight in a prime-time speech designed to appeal to the undecided voters who could make or break the president's campaign. Bush aides see her as one of his strongest assets. And they hope her popularity and soothing tone will convince waverers that there is careful thought behind her husband's tough talk and compassion behind his decisions.
Laura Bush stood mostly on the sidelines during the 2000 campaign. During her years in the White House, she has taken pains to stay out of politics. But she is playing a prominent role in this year's race, traveling through pivotal states and trumpeting the president's message. She tells voters how his tax cuts have helped businesswomen, how his education plan will lift up children, how his bold leadership has steered the nation through a fearful period.
"I know that you see what I see," she said at a Boys and Girls Club in Royal Oak, Mich. "The president is a steady leader during these historic times."
Laura Bush appeared in Langhorne, Pa., last month to defend her husband's policy on embryonic stem cell research from critics, among them Nancy Reagan and her son, Ron, who say Bush restrictions should be lifted to make it easier for scientists to find cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases.
She stepped up to defend her husband in the dispute over John Kerry's Vietnam War record. In an interview in the latest issue of Time, Laura Bush said attacks leveled by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that accuses Kerry of lying to win medals and betraying comrades by opposing the war, were "not really" unfair. "There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband," she said.
A softer message
But her greatest value may lie not in what she says but in the message her campaign stops seem to telegraph to voters: that anyone married to a woman this kind and nurturing, this friendly and down to earth, this composed, deserves to be president.
"Did she sway votes that day? Oh, yeah, I think she did," said Sue Gruber Poser, owner of the Waite Park quilt shop where the first lady spoke to an audience of about 350 women. "You can't live with somebody like that and not have it rub off on you."
The president frequently opens campaign events with just such a claim.
"I'm going to give you some reasons why I think you ought to put me back into office," he told a crowd Sunday in Wheeling, W.Va. "Perhaps the most important one of all is for Laura to be the first lady for four more years."
She has never liked that title, with its suggestion of lofty stature. Neither does she care for the notion of her "role" as wife of the leader of the free world. Throughout her husband's decade-long political career, she has described herself simply as George Bush's wife and the mother of their twin daughters.
A book lover from an early age and a former librarian, Laura Bush has been active in promoting literacy and educational improvement, acting as host at book festivals in Texas and Washington, and convening a White House summit on early childhood education.
She gained attention after the Sept. 11 attacks, when -- as her husband assumed the wartime role that would define his first term -- she cast herself as the nation's comforter in chief.
But Laura Bush has not sought a seat at the policy-making table in the White House, as did her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She lets it be known that she stays out of debates on policy and strategy, leaving that to the president -- "Bushie," as she calls him, and he her -- and to his advisers.
The result has been that now, with the election race heating up, Laura Bush can draw from a reservoir of popularity among voters. Yet, she is not directly associated with the contentious aspects of her husband's presidency.
In her speeches, she rarely talks about the war in Iraq. But as she greets voters, she argues that there's far more to her husband than his warrior side.
During a chat in the quilt shop, the first lady confided that "it's hard for her for her husband to be known as a war president," Poser said. "She said he's such a warm person, [and] a lot of people will never see that because they only see this other side of him."
Laura Bush's appeal could be particularly potent among women, who make up a disproportionate share of undecided voters. Polls indicate a wide gender gap, with Kerry enjoying a sharp advantage among women that, in this tight race, might be enough to tilt the election.
While she has cultivated an image as a stand-by-your-man wife who does not question her husband's decisions, Laura Bush makes clear to her mostly female audiences that the president listens to women.
"My husband believes that we should all have an equal opportunity to achieve our dreams, and he's got three strong women at home who won't let him forget it," she told a group of businesswomen in Lakewood, Colo.
Still, she might be hard-pressed to appeal to women who have not supported Bush in the past, who polls show are more likely to be young and single.
Still the same Laura
It is a tall order for a woman who once dreaded the idea of delivering a speech. In her decade as a first lady -- in Texas and now in Washington -- friends have watched Laura Bush change from a shy and reluctant public figure to one who is poised and even glamorous giving speeches, appearing on television and holding state dinners. But those who know her best say that she has not really changed.
"Her personality and her heart are absolutely unaffected by the position that she has; she has just stayed Laura," said Nancy Weiss, a friend since 1978.
Laura Welch was born Nov. 4, 1946, in Midland, Texas, the only child of Harold Welch, a successful homebuilder, and his wife, Jenna. By second grade, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She received a bachelor's degree in education at Southern Methodist University and taught in public schools before earning a master's in library science at the University of Texas.
In 1977, she gave up her career when she met and married George W. Bush. Their twins, Barbara and Jenna, were born in 1981. Laura Bush got her first taste of life as a first lady in 1994, when Bush was elected governor of Texas.
Through it all, Laura Bush has maintained an intense focus on the most minute aspects of her life as a wife and mother. Friends say it is those details -- plus her books and frequent long walks -- that keep her from being overwhelmed.
Last month, in the thick of her campaign swing through battleground states, the first lady kept track of her domestic to-do list, dispatching an aide to locate a vacuum cleaner she was afraid Jenna might have lost when she left Austin after graduating from the University of Texas last spring.
Susan Nowlin, a friend since they were sorority sisters at SMU, was amused but not entirely surprised when the first lady's office called to ask that her daughter Elise, who now lives in Jenna's old house, check.
"I just died laughing," Nowlin said. "I just thought, with everything going on, the fact that she's keeping track of a vacuum cleaner is incredible. She's not so caught up in what all of her obligations are as first lady that she's not available to just be there for things like that."
A roommate of Jenna's in New York City, Mia Baxter, said she was shocked to wake up from a nap recently to find the first lady in her apartment, scrubbing the floor.
But for now, Laura Bush's most important household chore might be helping President Bush win a second term.
"She wants her husband to be re-elected president," said Gordon Johndroe, her spokesman, "and she wants to get out there and help."
Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.