Posted: Nov. 10, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

It looked like a lockdown -- brawny police dogs with K-9 and SWAT officers from the Wilmington Police Department in the halls of the Shortlidge Elementary School and an announcement piped through the speaking system, "Please keep all students in the classroom."

The forces of law and order were arrayed against the danger that someone unauthorized might catch a glimpse of Laura Bush.

The first lady spent part of Monday in Delaware at two closely controlled events -- the first at the school overlooking the Brandywine and the second at a contributors' luncheon for Bush-Cheney '04 at the Westover Hills home of MBNA President Charles M. Cawley.

The first event was focused on early reading, the second on early money.

The public was excluded from the school. The press and public were excluded from the lunch -- except for about 100 invited guests with $2,000 to spend on the re-election of the Republican president.

Republican State Chairman Terry A. Strine, who attended the lunch, said Laura Bush was there for almost two hours, gave a short talk and met individually with everyone. "She is warm and friendly and engaging, just like the lady next door," he said.

Cawley is what is known as a Ranger, someone who is collecting at least $200,000 in campaign contributions for the Bush-Cheney operation. The Delaware finance chairman for the presidential ticket is Lance L. Weaver, who works with Cawley as MBNA's executive vice chairman.

George W. Bush did not carry Delaware in 2000, when the state gave 55 percent of the popular vote and its three electoral votes to Democrat Albert Gore Jr. It was the first time since 1948 the electorate here did not vote for the candidate who went to the White House, although it did vote for the candidate who won the most votes nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who is the state chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, was optimistic that Delaware would go into the Republican column in 2004 even as he noted its status as a "swing" state, neither reliably Republican red nor Democratic blue. He predicted that events like these with the first lady -- which he attended -- would help.

"We're a purple state, I guess. It's never easy in Delaware, we always know that," Castle said. "There's a reasonable expectation that he [Bush] would win."

At the school, it was show-and-tell. The White House would show so the press could tell. Bush spent 11 minutes reading to 14 students in the second-grade classroom of Janna Kane, the children wiggling into place on a colorful rug with an alphabet pattern as the first lady sat on a chair. She read from a book called It's Fall.

Except for the six television cameras and phalanx of reporters hemming them in, it seemed to be a precious time, the first lady who used to be a teacher herself and the children, without a hint of the guns and badges in the hallway outside.

After Bush left the classroom, she devoted another 10 minutes to a press conference, which was observed by Castle and a pair of Wilmington Democrats, Mayor James M. Baker and Council President Theodore Blunt, along with some officials from the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

She talked about the importance of reading and appeared to go out of her way not to cause any ripples. In the classroom a child had asked her what was hard about being the first lady, and she had said there were only good parts, except that dealing with the press might be the hardest part. Now she wanted to clarify herself.

"That was only a joke," she said.

Afterwards Castle said the press conference showed what an asset Bush is. "She is a wonderful presence," he said. "A Laura Bush always puts a softer side to politics. You can see instinctively she is not that political a person."

Castle acknowledged, however, that Delaware might not have caught sight of the soft presence at the school without the hard dollars at the lunch. "I would hope so, but I don't know," he said.