WASHINGTON — IF Americans voted for first ladies, at least one Bush would almost certainly remain in the White House.
Even here among George Bush's keenest partisans, the best selling campaign button at one stand reads "Reelect Barbara Bush's husband."
Not oblivious to their strongest asset, the impresarios of the Bush campaign are giving a higher convention profile to Barbara Bush than any presidential spouse in memory.
This is not just because she is by far the most well-liked of all the presidential and vice-presidential candidates and their wives.
It is also because she carries exactly the believability that mere politicians so desperately lack these days. The Bush team hopes that some of that sterling credibility casts a sheen on the character of Mrs. Bush's husband.
The spouses of candidates make no measurable impact on vote totals, as a rule. If this year is different, it will be less because Mrs. Bush is so popular than because her counterpart, Hillary Clinton, crossed a traditional line in this campaign by asserting a policy role in a potential Clinton administration.
Voters do not approve. Mrs. Clinton registers less than half the approval in surveys and far higher negatives than Mrs. Bush.
These opinions may be riding much deeper currents. Hillary Clinton is caught in a turmoil of American ambivalence about families and women's roles. Barbara Bush comes across as an oasis of warmth, strength, and reassurance through that turmoil.
As women have surged into the work force in recent decades, says William Galston, a Democratic policy analyst, "many of them are quite ambivalent about it."
Women have more freedom and more choices, but at the cost of some strain in family ties. Most men and women sense that the family is in trouble, says Dr. Galston, who has been studying family policy and trends for the past several years.
"Someone like Barbara Bush sends a very reassuring message. She appeals to that part of the American psyche that wants life to be simpler, more stable and tranquil, than it really is," he says.
Gary Bauer, president of the conservative Family Research Council, believes that Mrs. Bush's life embodies values that Americans prefer to those of Mrs. Clinton.
Those values include "fidelity, faithfulness, seeing the role of the woman in the home as keeping the family together," says Mr. Bauer, who was domestic policy adviser to President Reagan.
Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, has published views over the years promoting greater power for courts in family matters that involve children - views Bauer sees as radical.
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic think tank, believes the difference between Bush and Clinton has more to do with generation than values. "All Barbara Bush's friends have daughters like Hillary Clinton," she says.
Mrs. Bush made her choices relatively early in life. She dropped out of college to marry "the first man I ever kissed." She raised five children and ran a household while her husband led an exceptionally busy life outside the home.
She recalled once in a speech occasionally feeling that between diapers, Little League, and Sunday School "I'd never, ever have fun again and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of having a small company and traveling around the world, was having a lot of fun."
But her most famous words, in a Wellesley College commencement address two years ago, make an accounting that affirms her own life choices.
"As important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer, or business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections - with spouses, with children, with friends - are the most important investments you will ever make," she told the graduating women.
"At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent."
The message of that speech, however, was to respect all the choices that individuals make - whether traditional and home-centered or work-centered in the world.
She sounded an arguably similar theme last week when she said that abortion and sexual preference were matters of "personal preference" that should be left out of party platforms.
Barbara Bush does not speak out on public issues very often. Voters prefer it that way, says Betsy Hart, an executive at the conservative Heritage Foundation: "People want to know that a candidate is his own man, or her own woman," she says.
Republican pollster Vince Breglio agrees. People see a spouse with an activist agenda as an unknown political risk, he says. "It has precious little to do with the fact that she is a career woman."
George Bush has made a constant refrain of telling audiences that "I wish Barbara were here." Wednesday, she has a prime time convention speech of her own.