First Lady Bush Steps Up for GOP Campaigns
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The most admired Republican right now, seemingly untouched by any of her party's problems, is First Lady Laura Bush. She is far more popular than her husband. Her approval ratings have been almost twice his at times. And she is great demand this campaign season. While the president often does private fundraising for candidates, Mrs. Bush regularly appears in public, drawing very friendly crowds and generous campaign contributors.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer saw Mrs. Bush yesterday at the Century Center in South Bend, Indiana.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: First Lady Laura Bush's campaign schedule reads like a list of most endangered Republicans. She was in South Bend to come to the aid of Chris Chocola, a two term congressman whose race is too close to call. He spoke to the crowd waiting for Laura Bush.
Representative CHRIS CHOCOLA (Republican, Indiana): The Democrats think that the road to the majority is running right through Indiana and I think they're right. But when they get here, with your help, they will see a big Do Not Enter sign.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
WERTHEIMER: Plainly some of the people milling around the room are rather more excited about the first lady than about Chocola. Sharon Kirkham is a flight attendant and a member of the La Porte City Council.
Ms. SHARON KIRKHAM: She was on Jay Leno. She was so darling. He was asking her, of course, some personal questions. And she said, well, you know, Jay what happens in the White House stays in the White House.
WERTHEIMER: But loyalist that she clearly is, Kirkham says she's disturbed by the page scandal, inappropriate e-mails sent to pages by former Congressman Mark Foley.
Ms. KIRKHAM: It is shameful. It's despicable. But he's gone.
WERTHEIMER: If it were convincingly demonstrated that the Republican leadership of the House was willing to take their chances with this coming out because they didn't want to lose one Republican seat, would that be a distressing piece of information for you?
Ms. KIRKHAM: Absolutely. I'm covered with chills just answering your question. There is no time and no place this would be acceptable for any reason.
WERTHEIMER: Laura Bush is trying to help in places where these concerns and others threaten to overwhelm GOP candidates, but she doesn't speak about problems. She's gentle and gracious, ready with praise specific to the candidate and the region.
Mrs. LAURA BUSH: Corn production is vital to Indiana's economy and one of the most promising uses for corn is as an alternative source for energy. In the House, Chris supported the 2005 Energy Bill, which attracted three new bio-diesel and 12 new ethanol plants to Indiana.
WERTHEIMER: The first lady always emphasizes returning Republicans to Washington to help her husband. She told Hoosiers yesterday that the president's remaining agenda is too important to be reduced to politics.
Mrs. BUSH: Ending our dependence on foreign oil, reforming our immigration system, rebuilding the Gulf Coast and keeping our country safe from terrorism are not easy tasks, but they are absolutely vital goals. To accomplish them we must have serious national conversations conducted with civility and respect.
WERTHEIMER: Afterwards, Chocola said the visit was a success. A beloved lady can only help. But he acknowledged that he's running in what he calls a challenging environment.
Representative CHOCOLA: Some Republicans are disillusioned with some spending. Certainly the war has tried everyone's patience. People have to ask themselves who do they think will govern better. Do they think that Nancy Pelosi will be better in keeping them safe and winning the war on terror?
WERTHEIMER: Just a few blocks away, Chocola's challenger, Joe Donnelly, has his campaign headquarters. This is a rematch for these two. Some polls show Donnelly pulling ahead. Will a visit from the first lady make a difference in a close race? Donnelly doesn't think so.
Mr. JOE DONNELLY (Congressional candidate): I don't really think it has any affect. We respect the first lady and she seems like a fine person, but this election is about Chris Chocola and Joe Donnelly and about the fact that people here in Indiana want change, they want a new direction and they're sending a message this year.
WERTHEIMER: Several people, including a group of little girls, said they'd never forget seeing the first lady in Indiana.
But in these close races, it's not clear whether she's energizing Republicans or perhaps providing them a welcome intermission in an unpleasant political season.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
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