CONCORD, N.H. -- The Bush camp yesterday brought out its biggest gun to boost support for the president in recession-weary New Hampshire.
And once again, Barbara Bush took up the crusade. Gracefully waltzing through a daylong swing through the state, she signed autographs, petted puppies and generally charmed the crowds, some of whom were clearly less enthralled with her husband than with the ever-popular first lady.
"I'm a Barbara Bush supporter," said Newport resident Marie Bugbee, waiting at the Power House Mall in West Lebanon for a glimpse of the first lady. "At this point, I don't know about George."
"She's the nicest, most effective surrogate we have," said former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg, whose son, present Gov. Judd Gregg, accompanied the first lady on her tour that began at the shopping mall. "You couldn't walk another surrogate through a mall and get a crowd like this. Mrs. Bush -- she goes anywhere and crowds flock to her."
Indeed, they flocked as usual yesterday during Mrs. Bush's third trip here since December. But as she made her way from mall to medical center to homeless shelter, not all the messages sent her way were strictly adoring.
Amid Bush-Quayle signs waved by those gathered outside the town hall in Warner were some others: "We like you, Barbara! But you're sleeping with the enemy." "Mr. Bush, Edjokation President." "The U.S. Can't Survive 4 More Bush Years."
In Hopkinton she told Mary Boucher, who had asked about health care costs, to look at the president's health care plan unveiled yesterday.
"To me, that's really not a good enough answer," Ms. Boucher said, as the first lady moved on to shake hands with others. "What George Bush has been saying about health care hasn't given us any solutions."
Admitting that she didn't believe the president would handily beat Republican challenger Patrick J. Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary -- "he doesn't have the time, he's working for a living," she said of her husband -- she implored voters to stick with the incumbent.
"We really need your help," she said over and over again yesterday. "There's no question in my mind, and I hope there's no question in yours, that George Bush is by far the best-qualified man to be president of the United States."
"Mrs. Bush, I'm gonna vote for YOU again," a supporter shouted outside MacKenna's Restaurant in New London.
And over and over again yesterday, the first lady played the role of first defender, as many took the opportunity to hit her with their concerns about health care, homelessness and most of all, the economy.
At a Salvation Army-run homeless shelter in Concord, resident George Jarrie pressed her for answers on issues of homelessness and poverty. "I firmly believe there should be shelters everywhere. There shouldn't be homeless people on the streets," said Mr. Jarrie, standing with Mrs. Bush by the bunk beds in the Spartan room.
"There are a lot of shelters, but we can't get people to go in," the first lady responded.
"And also, there are a lot of people going hungry in this country," he pressed on.
"We have a lot of food kitchens out there, as you well know," Mrs. Bush answered.
"That's true. I truly believe we should feed the hungry people in this country first before we go across the water and feed the rest of the world," he shot back.
"Well, that's good," said Mrs. Bush. "I'm glad you told me."
While playing defense yesterday, the first lady even tackled questions about Mr. Bush's visit Tuesday to the National Grocers Association convention in Orlando, Fla. She said reports that her husband had never before seen the electronic scanners that have been used at supermarket checkout counters for the last decade were inaccurate.
"What he was seeing was state-of-the-art, new, brand-new equipment -- you've never seen it in a grocery store," she explained with great zeal.
"On the computer comes every ingredient in the product, the price, how many in the inventory -- it's a whole new concept. It is NOT something that's been in the market."
George Bush, she wanted to make clear, has been.