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Inside Politics

Democratic attacks don't sit well with first lady

Ready for campaign, Laura Bush admits to a 'feeling of nostalgia'

By John King
CNN Washington Bureau

First lady Laura Bush spoke Thursday between campaign stops.
First lady Laura Bush spoke Thursday between campaign stops.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gearing up for her husband's 2004 re-election campaign, first lady Laura Bush said she takes it personally when Democrats criticize President Bush.

In an interview Thursday on her Air Force jet between stops in Georgia and Florida, Bush made it clear she does not think much of attacks suggesting her husband went absent without leave during his National Guard service during the Vietnam War.

"I don't think he takes it personally," she said. "No one likes to hear total -- things that are totally not true about somebody they love -- but especially in a political race.

"Right now, the Democrats are still picking their candidate. When they've picked one, then you know the campaign will start in earnest. But it seems to me that they are spending most of their time saying really terrible things about my husband. No, I really don't like that."

She admitted to both joy and sadness about what is likely to be the president's last campaign.

She said she has "a great feeling of nostalgia to look at the campaign ahead because we know whatever happens it is going to be the last one. It is really a huge privilege to be able to campaign with my husband and travel around our great country."

On Thursday, the first lady attended health-care events in Georgia and in Miami, Florida, as well as a luncheon that raised $230,000 for the re-election campaign. In all, her solo fund-raising events have brought in more than $5 million over the past year.

Campaign role for daughters?

Bush talked rather nervously about a public campaign role for her twin daughters -- Barbara and Jenna -- after they graduate from college this spring.

The Bushes have shielded their daughters from the public eye throughout the president's political career, but the first lady said the twins are considering becoming more visible this year.

"They are terrific girls. They are getting ready to graduate from college, and we'll see when they graduate," she said. "You know, this will be really the first campaign that their dad has run that they are really old enough to be involved."

She said she had some ambivalence about having them on the campaign trail.

"Of course, I want them to be involved if they want to and they also, like we, are looking at this as the last campaign," she said. "So I know they have the feeling of wanting to be involved because it is their father's last campaign .

"But at the same time, I worry about the pain that they might have because they didn't choose this life. Their dad did. Their dad and I did actually. And we want them to be able to live the life that they want to live and not subject them to mean remarks."

It was clear from the talk with the first lady that her husband is paying closer attention to the Democratic nomination fight than his top advisers let on. In two conversations this week, she said she and the president spend a fair amount of time discussing politics.

Asked Wednesday if it was the president's assumption that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts would be the Democratic nominee, she said, "I don't know exactly what his assumption is, but it does look like that to everyone now, though other people won two of the primaries [this week]."

She was referring to Sen. John Edwards' victory in South Carolina and an unofficial first-place finish by retired Gen. Wesley Clark in Oklahoma.

Asked if the president had voiced a preference for a fall opponent, she laughed and said, "Not that I would tell you."

The first lady dismissed suggestions from Democrats that the president hyped the case for war in Iraq.

"Everything the president made his decision on was exactly the same intelligence that the Congress had; it was the exact same intelligence that President Clinton had, the same intelligence everyone had, and President Bush made his decision based on it," she said.

"I will say that I really believe, and I think nearly everyone believes, that the Middle East, certainly our country and Iraq are certainly much safer and much better without Saddam Hussein. And for Iraq to be able to have a chance to build a free country, to build a democracy, is really a wonderful outcome of what happened."

The wide-ranging conversation with the first lady extended to this week's controversy over the Super Bowl halftime show on CBS. Bush said she wasn't watching at the moment when Janet Jackson bared one of her breasts, a stunt that has drawn widespread criticism.

"What it represented was a kind of television viewing that you don't want little children to see. ... It was at a family time of day, a time when many, many families were together watching the Super Bowl," Bush said. "So I think that makes it really unfortunate. Parents didn't know to turn the television off before that happened."

When she first moved into the White House three years ago, associates promised a very different first lady from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made no secret of her position as a top political adviser to her husband.

"I think I have been just what I expected to be," Bush said, adding she has taken a prominent role in education and women's health issues and as an advocate for women's rights in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You know, I'm his wife; I'm not his political adviser," Mrs. Bush said. "That is the relationship that I value the most -- the relationship we have as husband and wife. So, sure I give advice, but I also know that advice from your spouse can be quite wearying. And so I don't give too much."

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