Bush's mother, wife campaign for crucial vote

Thursday, October 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Christy Hoppe / The Dallas Morning News

LANSING, Mich. – The first ladies in the life of George W. Bush began pitching for female voters in crucial states on Wednesday, kicking off a "W. Stands for Women" tour in the presidential campaign's last 20 days.

In recent polls, the Republican candidate has trailed Democratic rival Al Gore in an important W: winning female voters. The polls show a gender gap, with Mr. Gore drawing anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent more support than Mr. Bush among women. And female voters – who traditionally turn out in greater numbers than men – are key.

Aiming to capture their votes, Barbara and Laura Bush trekked through the GOP stronghold of western Michigan, attracting hundreds of other mothers and wives as they talked about education and other issues high on women's lists.

Democrats have said that Mr. Gore will do a better job addressing these issues, which Mr. Gore says are important to working families.

Beginning their pitch in Grand Rapids, the governor's 75-year-old mother, Barbara Bush, told a gathering of mostly women at the Van Andel Museum Center exactly whom this election would depend upon.

"We are, no doubt about it, the most powerful political group in this country," the former first lady said.

She spoke about her son in a folksy style, saying that he knows about "kitchen table issues" and that he has surrounded himself with strong women. Sometimes, through the happenstance of birth, he had no choice, she remarked.

Raising his "two wonderful, strong-willed teenage daughters" has given him an edge on foreign policy, she said. "Thanks to them, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind he will be able to negotiate with any country in the world, regardless of how difficult, complicated or stubborn the opposition is."

His wife, Laura Bush, agreed that the governor's family has shaped him, stressing that it is a daunting clan. In the Bush family, "even the dog is a best-selling author," she said.

The former school librarian underscored her husband's education plans.

Noting that Mr. Gore sometimes stays overnight at the home of a teacher, she said, "Well, George spends every night with a teacher."

Indeed, while the couple would be in different cities Wednesday night, the family met around dinnertime – on the tarmac of the Detroit airport. The meeting was impromptu, just two planes meeting in the night.

"I asked Mother to delay so I can give her a little kiss," Mr. Bush said.

"It's about time my mother got on the campaign trail," he joked.

Mr. Bush said that he is not worried about a gender gap.

"I think when it's all said and done, I'll do well with women voters," he said.

While he stayed on in Detroit, the Bush women flew to Pennsylvania to continue their tour, which will take them to Wisconsin next week.

Earlier, the women–dressed in matching cobalt blue– were joined at a few stops by Lynne Cheney, wife of GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney; Michigan first lady Michelle Engler; and Bush foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice.

They are up against Democratic dominance in recent years on issues such as education, health care and preserving Social Security – all seen as issues important to women.

In addition, Mr. Bush opposes abortion rights except in cases of rape, incest or risk to a pregnant woman's life. Laura Bush said she believes his view won't necessarily affect her husband's appeal to women who want to keep abortions legal.

"I think there are a lot of issues women are interested in" besides abortion, she said.

Leaving details of policy mostly up to the candidate, the women spoke about him in a personal way, saying – not surprisingly – that he is truthful and compassionate.

Barbara Bush said she never thought she would be campaigning again, adding that after this week she will return to other obligations.

But, unlike her prediction when her son ran for governor against incumbent Ann Richards, when Mrs. Bush told him she thought it would be a losing battle, this time Mrs. Bush said she thinks he will win.

In Brighton, a picturesque town of 60,000, the Bush women walked down Main Street followed by a crowd of more than 1,000.

Again, what brought them to this street – a setting that could have been pulled straight from the movie It's a Wonderful Life – was women.

That all-important constituency owns about 85 percent of the businesses, boutiques and bakeries along the downtown block, Laura Bush said.

For those who came to see them, many said the Bush women represent the traditional values they hold dear.

"I think the average woman can relate to them," said Margaret Dunleavy of Brighton. "I think our concerns are the same as theirs: education, a stable economy and a peaceful country," she said.

Others said that the Bush women represented what they thought the nation's first lady should be: a nurturing, supportive spouse who would not be key in policy matters.

That sentiment was echoed by Laura Bush, who said, "The most important job we'll ever have is to raise moral, caring children."

What sets the Bush women apart, said Luanne Cook of Grand Rapids, "is that they're not in it to ride their husband's coattails. They're not in it for their own political future. They're not Hillary."

"That's it in a nutshell," agreed Peggy Laskus, also of Grand Rapids.