Why Middle America finds genteel Laura so appealing

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The Independent US

She has an approval rating her husband would kill for. She radiates good sense. She projects a mixture of genteelness and gentility that makes her almost impossible to dislike ­ something that cannot be said of her spouse.

She has an approval rating her husband would kill for. She radiates good sense. She projects a mixture of genteelness and gentility that makes her almost impossible to dislike ­ something that cannot be said of her spouse.

Small surprise therefore that last night Laura Bush was given one of the most prized speaking slots, part of the bare three hours of the Republican convention that the networks will broadcast live.

No one knows her value better than the 43rd president. Now that Laura has made her peace with the family business of politics, George Bush takes her with him on the campaign trail whenever possible. Even when she is not there, he talks about her. "Re-elect me, and make sure Laura Bush has a second term as first lady," is one of his favourite lines.

She could hardly be more different from the first lady who preceded her, and the one who, if John Kerry wins, would replace her.

Unlike the polarising Hillary Clinton, she does not take on controversial issues, confining her remarks to themes such as education and the rights of women oppressed around the world. Fittingly, the night she spoke was themed "People of Compassion".

Unlike the proud and carelessly outspoken Teresa Heinz Kerry, she will spend entire speeches by her husband gazing at him with admiration, even when she knows every word by heart. And not surprisingly, Laura Bush is more popular than either of them.

One recent poll put her approval rating at 70 per cent, a level her husband has not touched since the capture of Saddam Hussein almost nine months ago, and one matched only by her mother-in-law, Barbara, in her grandmotherly twinset-and-pearls days among the former first ladies.

Laura Bush always had mixed feelings about politics, secretly dreading her husband's presidential campaign of 2000. But now she is an integral part of his re-election effort. She is a fixture in the "feel-good" ads that Mr Bush favours, as his surrogates take the low road, lambasting Mr Kerry for his wobbliness and inconsistencies, rather than the "low road" that some other Republicans have opted for. She is the only First Lady to have delivered the traditional Presidential weekly radio addresses.

Yesterday, she was even helping to smooth the furore created by Mr Bush's admission to NBC that the war on terror might never be won. She said: "This struggle would never be ended by a formal treaty and it would last a long time, that's what I think the President meant." She added that her husband had led the United States with "strength and conviction" after the 11 September attacks and deserved re-election so he could finish the job of making America safer.

As Republicans hoped to show a more compassionate side on the second night of their convention, the first lady said her husband was leading "the most historic struggle my generation has ever known". She added: "The stakes are so high. Our parents' generation confronted tyranny and liberated millions. As we do the hard work of confronting today's threat, we can also be proud that 50 million more men, women and children live in freedom today thanks to the United States of America and our allies."

Laura Bush and film star turned California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, are part of the Republican push for swing voters by featuring their most moderate voices.

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