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Barbara Bush storms Tampa Bay

Darlene Givens isn't sure what a Republican or a Democrat is _ let alone what party she belongs to. The candidates are a mystery, a big lumbering bunch who don't make much sense. Even the president confuses her.

But she knows one thing: When she votes for the first time this November, Darlene Givens is voting for George Bush.

He's got a real nice wife.

"He must be a good man if he has a wife like that," the 18-year-old high school student said Friday.

Barbara Bush has scored another hit.

It was all in a day's work for Mrs. Bush on Friday, as she swept into Tampa Bay for three appearances, proving she may be her husband's best not-so-secret weapon in his re-election bid.

From students to waitresses, from Democrats to Pat Buchanan supporters, Mrs. Bush's approval rating continues to soar _ even if her husband's does not.

"She is loved by everyone," said Yvonne McKitrick, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board and a dedicated Democrat who met Mrs. Bush during a Tampa luncheon. "She has a real non-partisan appeal. She a real person."

Mrs. Bush is also a person who puts her husband's campaign first.

In her three appearances, Mrs. Bush lauded her husband's work during his first term and said he should be re-elected in November. Mrs. Bush made two stops in Tampa: at a luncheon honoring school volunteers and at a high school. At night, she gave a rousing speech filled with one-liners at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Clearwater sponsored by the Pinellas County Republican Committee. All events were coordinated by Jeb Bush, who manages his father's Florida campaign.

"You didn't think I'd come 2,000 miles and not mention the world's most qualified, capable, wise _ I'm not through yet _ decent, courageous, caring man in the world do you?" Mrs. Bush asked at the Tampa luncheon honoring SERVE, the county's School Enrichment Resource Volunteers in Education, a group of 13,500 volunteers who teach students about careers.

"I think she's a fox," said Toby Johnson, a waitress who served Mrs. Bush at lunch. "She is a very, very nice woman. And she ate every bite."

Darlene Givens, the student at Jefferson High School, said Mrs. Bush's visit shows the president cares about education.

"It lets us know he is trying to work for students," said Givens, who talked with Mrs. Bush briefly and gave her flowers. Although she has not followed Bush's performance in the White House, Givens said Mrs. Bush persuaded her to vote for the president.

"And I'm going to get my parents to vote for him too," Givens added.

"Well, isn't that sweet?" Mrs. Bush said later. "That's just great."

Anna Perez, Mrs. Bush's press secretary, said the first lady is an integral part of the campaign.

This week alone, she made appearances in New Hampshire, Illinois and Tampa Bay. Since January, she has visited homeless shelters and housing projects and even allowed Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry to follow her around and write a satirical column about her effusive campaign style.

"I want to go on the record about that," Mrs. Bush told the 750 Republicans who attended the Lincoln dinner. "I don't care how many buttons it's wearing, I will not hug a rutabaga!"

"I just do what I have to do," Mrs. Bush said during an interview Friday afternoon. "Of course, I speak well of you-know-who. I believe in him."

"I have always campaigned for my husband," she continued. And then launching into the adjectives again, she added:

"I think he is the finest, most decent, best man I've ever known."

But a Gallup poll released Friday showed that only 39 percent of 1,039 adults polled approved of the president's job performance.

Mrs. Bush said she doesn't believe in such polls. "That's dumb," she said.

Nor does she buy into the idea that Republican candidate Pat Buchanan "sent George Bush a message" when he earned 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.

"Let me remind you, we won by a very big vote," Mrs. Bush said. "When you have a 16-point victory, you've won."

Craig Bostock, the Pinellas coordinator for the Buchanan campaign, quibbles with that assessment _ but not with Barbara Bush. He might criticize George, but never Barbara, who he concedes is a powerful weapon.

"She's a fabulous lady. You've got to love her," Bostock said. "The more George Bush sends her out on the campaign trail, the better for him."

_ Times staff writer John Cutter contributed to this report.

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