Feb. 18, 2004 -- For the first time, first lady Laura Bush is speaking out on the controversy surrounding the president's service in the National Guard decades ago — before she met him.
She says she's absolutely certain her husband was fulfilling his duty at the time "because he told me he was. And the records had been shown. He wouldn't have gotten an honorable discharge if he hadn't pulled his duty," she said in an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS.
Mrs. Bush has harsh words for Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who has leveled the charge that her husband was AWOL.
"I don't think it's fair to really lie about allegations about someone like the Democratic national chairman did," she said. "Well, he made it up, I guess I should say."
She's not concerned about her husband's declining poll numbers.
"I think part of the reason he has is because the Democrats have just spent over $100 million campaigning," she said. "And their main campaign issues have been to beat George Bush. That's all they really talked about."
On the Road
Mrs. Bush is hitting the road these days, already putting in long hours on the campaign trail.
The Bush campaign sees the first lady as a major asset, and officials say they plan to use her to woo independent voters in key swing states — like Arkansas, the first stop on her latest trip.
Laura Bush's style is low key, and, as a former schoolteacher, she usually emphasizes noncontroversial education issues.
"We want teachers with diverse academic backgrounds who will commit to teaching in urban or rural public schools," she told an audience at a Los Angeles elementary school.
But the 2004 campaign, which is shaping up to be tight and tough, is already marked by harsh accusations against her husband.
"I don't know if you ever get hardened to it," Mrs. Bush said. "No one wants to see somebody they love characterized in a way that they're not."
For the most part, however, the first lady tries to stay above the fray and raise money … lots of money.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, Calif. — her second fund-raiser on the trip — the first lady took in $170,000 for the campaign.
She is an extraordinarily successful fund-raiser, collecting more than $5 million so far. Some campaign officials call her "the secret weapon."
Laura Bush's strengths, said one Democratic pollster who has asked voters about her, are her steadiness and warmth.
"They like her because they think she's dignified and ladylike," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "They like her because she reinforces his message on education. They like her because she seems so down to earth. They also like her, particularly women, because they think she counters a little bit of his macho, shoot-from-the-hip style."
In a close race, the first lady's broad appeal and political toughness could be crucial assets for her husband's re-election bid.
ABCNEWS' Terry Moran contributed to this report.