By Mike Linn
CLOVIS — Against the backdrop of a hay-filled truck with a “Viva Bush” sign in its window, first lady Laura Bush told scores of eastern New Mexicans about her husband’s dedication to education, the economy and quelling the tide of terrorism.
During a 20-minute speech at the Curry County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Bush said her husband’s “character and conviction” will continue in the White House for four more years, and provided a list of reasons to support her predictions.
A recent rise in the country’s employment rate, success of the No Child Left Behind Act, the progress of open government in Iraq and civil rights for women in Afghanistan were among claims trumpeted in the first lady’s speech.
A West Texas native and former public school teacher in Dallas and Houston, Bush also told the estimated 2,000 in attendance how exciting it was to be back on the High Plains.
“It’s great to be in Clovis, Curry County and eastern New Mexico. It’s so close to where George and I grew up. I feel like I’m home,” Bush said.
The first lady was born in Midland, Texas, the town her husband called home as a youngster.
The first lady urged voters to reach out to Democrats and independents who may be undecided in this year’s presidential race, a point paralleled by Clovis City Manager Ray Mondragon in a brief speech before Bush’s arrival.
Mondragon told the audience he was a Democrat, waited for the boos to subside, then added: “ … I’m proud to support George W. Bush for president.”
Portales resident Lea Fuller is also a Bush supporter, who described the first lady’s speech as “beautiful.”
“I’m 100 percent behind her,” Fuller said. “She was so great. I appreciate George Bush. If he would lose I would be heartbroken.”
Local Republicans didn’t know specific reasons why the first lady targeted Clovis as a campaign stop, but noted that New Mexico — with its five electoral votes — is considered a swing state in the presidential election.
In 2000, the president lost the state by 366 votes to former Vice President Al Gore.
Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, said the conservative nature of eastern New Mexicans could have prompted the visit.
“The president had a lot of support over here four years ago,” Harden said. “We’re conservative in this part of the state whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.”
For the first time in history, Curry County this year has more registered Republican voters than Democrat.
Harden said he was impressed with meeting Bush for the first time.
“I thought her speech was dynamic, pretty full of what the president’s done — she hit all the highlights. She did a real good job speaking on his behalf,” Harden said.
The event had little resistance from protesting Democrats, although there were four Eastern New Mexico University students at the entrance gate with signs supporting Sen. John Kerry for president.
Kerry will debate President Bush tonight in Miami.
“We’re just here voicing our opinion … that George Bush has made some mistakes and deserves to be out of office,” said ENMU sophomore Scott Swagerty, holding a sign that read, “Teresa: Our Next First lady.”
Roy Richardson of Pleasant Hill said he’s been a Republican for four years, and while he doesn’t agree with everything the president does, he appreciates his character.
He was most impressed by “the fact that Mrs. Bush is not ashamed of opening the meeting with a prayer and that character counts” in an election.
Portales resident and Valencia Elementary Principal Todd Morris brought his family to the speech. He said he met George Bush in a coffee shop in Austin, Texas, in 1995.
Morris was one of the many waiting in a line the length of two football fields before the event began.
“It was amazing the first lady coming to eastern New Mexico, where basically the (Bush’s) roots are,” Morris said. “It was great for my family and everybody to come out and experience.”