STAMFORD, Conn.—Sara K. Rowan put on her best spring outfit and plunked down $2,500 Monday night to pose for a picture and chat with the true power in the White House—Laura Bush.
"She's a big investment," said Rowan, a 73-year-old accountant, still giddy over her brief encounter with the first lady at a political reception here. "She's the power behind the man, a strong power."
With President Bush's popularity tanking to all-time lows, and Vice President Dick Cheney's approval ratings even lower, Laura Bush is filling a vacuum and becoming a strong political money machine, raising cash for GOP candidates and venturing into districts where her husband might be political poison.
The first lady is riding a wave of popularity. Americans gave her an 82 percent approval rating in a January CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, among the highest ratings Gallup's ever recorded for any first lady. She fared well across party lines, with 97 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of independents and 69 percent of Democrats approving of her.
"Since her husband is down in the polls, she's picking up the slack," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a veteran Bush watcher. "There's no one remotely associated with the administration who is at the popularity level that she's at now."
That isn't lost on the president, who may have been only half-joking at a Las Vegas fundraiser Monday for Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., when he said that "the truth of the matter is Porter said, `Why don't we invite Laura and leave you at home, George W.?'"
Republican officials say they're cashing in on Laura Bush's likability in this congressional election year by sending her into swing districts where her kinder, gentler face might appeal more to disenchanted voters than would her husband's or Cheney's.
"Mrs. Bush certainly has an appeal that transcends partisanship," said Tracey Schmitt, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.
The first lady raised more than $15 million for Republicans in 2004. So far she's done 10 fundraising events in the 2005-06 election cycle, generating an estimated $2,650,000.
She's headlined events for Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., and Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., as well as for Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates Doug Forrester of New Jersey and Jerry Kilgore of Virginia.
On Monday night it was Stamford and an evening cocktail reception for Reps. Christopher Shays, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons, three Connecticut Republicans facing tough races, as the Democratic Party is targeting GOP moderates in November's elections.
Customers paid $1,000 to attend the event or ponied up $2,500 to have a grip-and-grin photo session with the first lady before listening to her speak in a hotel ballroom. For less than an hour's work, she helped raise $300,000, which will be split among the three candidates and the Connecticut Republican party.
The first lady gave a short speech highlighting each lawmaker's accomplishments and hawking her initiative to help America's youth. Aside from congratulating Shays for making 12 visits to Iraq, Laura Bush made no specific references to the president's agenda.
"During these crucial times in our nation's history, we need people in our state and national capitals who see the immense promise that's everywhere in our country and who look forward to the task at hand, no matter how difficult it might be," she told the crowd. "And Connecticut certainly has these people in Chris, Nancy and Rob. So let's make sure you re-elect them in November."
Her remarks were devoid of political red meat, which suited Simmons just fine. His district, which borders the Massachusetts and Rhode Island state lines, is only 22 percent Republican, so he must appeal to Democrats to survive politically. Asked how the president is faring in his district, Simmons quickly replied: "Terrible! Any more questions? Terrible!"
However, he added, Laura Bush "has an interest in people that cuts through all of the politics. When she comes up, we can actually have a good time. We can have fun. We can talk about things that are important, but we don't have to worry about, you know, protesters and all of the stuff when the president travels."
Charles Black, a Republican strategist who has informally advised Bush's presidential campaigns, said Laura Bush is an effective fundraiser because she's able to represent the president's administration while not being seen as part of it.
"The first lady is not viewed in a political context, so it probably doesn't have political consequences for the congressmen to have her in their districts," he said. "And she is an attraction to people who want to give 1,000 bucks or 500 bucks."
Not bad for a woman who was a reluctant campaigner when her husband first entered politics.
"She wanted no part of any of this from the get-go when they got married," Texas scholar Buchanan said. "She's gotten comfortable to the point that she seems engaged."
In an interview recently on CNN's "Larry King Live," Laura Bush said she now likes campaigning and fundraising "a lot."
"It's fun," she said.
(The Gallup poll was based on telephone interviews with 500 adults ages 18 and older and was conducted Jan. 20-22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LAURABUSH
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