When she first moved into the White House, she was called the "anti-Hillary." She had long ago given up her own career to support her husband and raise her children. She had married George W. Bush on the condition that she never have to deliver a political speech. She largely avoided controversy.
That Laura Bush is no more. Now in the thick of her husband's reelection campaign, and speaking at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, she has for months crisscrossed the country, raising millions of dollars and delivering speeches on the economy, jobs, women, and, lately, the hottest of hot-button topics, stem-cell research.
In an interview in this week's Time magazine, she was asked whether the recent ads by anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans were unfair, and replied, "Not really. There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband." The Kerry campaign hit back, saying Mrs. Bush's statement showed that "these attacks have been coordinated from the top down at the White House."
If being hit by the opposition is a sign of having "arrived" politically, then Laura Bush is there. And she is uniquely positioned to speak to voters in a way that other surrogates can't. To her husband's strategists, fighting for every advantage possible in a neck-and-neck race, Mrs. Bush's months-long transformation from shy helpmate to campaign heavyweight took place not a moment too soon.
"She's incredibly important to the campaign," said Ken Mehlman, manager of the reelection effort, speaking to reporters recently. "She appeals across the board, she appeals across the country, she appeals to our base, she appeals to swing voters, she appeals to Democrats."
The campaign also hopes Mrs. Bush can bring along more women voters in a race where the longstanding gender gap, which favors Democrats, is again evident. "She's emerged out of necessity," says James Rosebush, a former assistant to first lady Nancy Reagan and author of a book on first ladies. "The campaign needs people who are close to George Bush helping define who he is. What better person could you have than Laura Bush?"
In the latest Fox News poll, Mrs. Bush scored a higher favorability rating, at 67 percent, than her husband (50 percent), Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (48), his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (49), Sen. John McCain (57), or former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (59). Senator Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, scored only a 38, but she remains unknown to many voters.
Will Mrs. Bush's popularity make any difference in the president's bottom line come November? In the final analysis, people are voting for the top of the ticket - not the spouse or the running mate, analysts have long maintained. But they don't rule out a potential indirect benefit from Mrs. Bush's testimonials from the stump.
"She's someone who has that special brand of credibility in an administration that's credibility-challenged at the moment in some ways," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "It has to do with her transparent authenticity. She's not somebody who gives the impression she's saying something because someone told her to. Voters know she's not a slick politico."
Because Mrs. Bush has spent so many years in public life promoting the uncontroversial causes of reading and education, her ventures into the sticky terrain of stem cells and swift boats are more noteworthy. But as the president's wife of 27 years - one who has been called "the steel in his back" and a central force in his decision to stop drinking - Mrs. Bush is uniquely positioned to speak of him from a personal perspective.
"She can offer testimony that, whatever you might think of him as a political actor and however you may feel about this or that policy decision, this is a good man," says Professor Buchanan. "And the credibility of that assertion is elevated by the perception that she's a pretty good woman."
Of course, in this intensely charged political atmosphere, most Democrats - even those who like Mrs. Bush - would never make the leap to voting for Mr. Bush. Where Mrs. Bush could be effective is among the undecideds, some of whom may need only a nudge to vote to reelect the president.
And in assessing her statements, voters know that Mrs. Bush is hardly a neutral observer; she has her own stake in seeing her husband succeed. All first ladies behave like protective lionesses when their husbands or children come under attack. And Laura Bush has married into an intensely political family that sticks together.
She was a Democrat when she married Bush but easily converted to the other team. The day before her husband was inaugurated, she revealed on NBC's Today Show that she didn't believe Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, should be overturned - an anathema to the dominant Republican view. Since then, she has declined to discuss the subject. Her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, also acknowledged favoring abortion rights after she left the White House, but she, too, keeps quiet.
To this day, even as the Bush campaign puts Laura out on the trail, little is left to chance - except perhaps the chocolate custard cone she ordered during a recent unannounced stop in suburban St. Louis, while wearing a light-gray pantsuit. (By all appearances, she managed not to spill.) She was on her way to an invitation-only "W Stands for Women" rally in an upper-income area of St. Louis County. Mrs. Bush stuck to the script - highlighting the anniversary of women's suffrage in the US and gains for females in Iraq and Afghanistan - and didn't take questions. But the audience loved her, especially when she worked the rope line for 15 minutes after the speech.
In a typical comment, Bobby Cathcart, a pastor's wife from St. Charles County, said, "She's a wonderful support to her husband."
The most excited person on the rope line might have been Tammy Boyer, an Army specialist on leave after 16 months in Iraq and a Bush supporter. Laura Bush autographed her ticket with a special message. "She thanked me for my service, for being there," said Ms. Boyer.
In a recent appearance with her husband on Larry King Live, Mrs. Bush allowed that she now enjoys giving speeches. But, political observers say, don't expect her to run for the Senate anytime soon.
• Staci D. Kramer contributed to this report from St. Louis.