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Softer face of Bush diplomacy

Laura Bush arrived in Cairo Monday after being heckled by protesters in Israel.

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Laura Bush, who kept a relatively low profile during her husband's first term, stepped boldly into the thicket of Middle Eastern politics this week.

Following a trail blazed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady is taking a leading role in US efforts to win back the goodwill in the Middle East lost over the war in Iraq and the attendant torture scandals.

Monday, her five-day tour took her to Egypt, where she taped an episode of the US-funded Egyptian version of Sesame Street. Her costar for the day was Suzannne Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's wife, with whom she talked about the importance of reading. Mrs. Bush also visited an all-girl elementary school.

These stops are more familiar territory for the former Texas librarian. But Bush's visits to Jordan and Israel were more contentious - and indicative of the difficulties faced by any US official trying to address women's rights and democracy in the region.

In Jerusalem Sunday, the ancient city that has come to symbolize the tumult of the modern Middle East, the first lady visited the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, holy sights to Jews and Muslims, respectively, in an effort to send a message of peace and reconciliation.

But her visit was overshadowed by protesters who heckled the first lady. Bush said Monday that she was not surprised by the controversy and protests. "I think the protests were very expected. If you didn't expect them, you didn't know what it would be like when you got here ... Everyone knows how the tensions are and, believe me, I was very, very welcomed by most people."

So far, her visit to Egypt has been low key. She won't make any public appearances that will provide avenues for protesters. In addition to her Sesame Street appearance, she is having lunch with Mrs. Mubarak and other Egyptian women leaders, touring the pyramids, and visiting Egypt's showcase library in Alexandria.

Analysts say the Bush administrations is hoping that some of Mrs. Bush's popularity at home will extend overseas, where her husband has little popular support. In the US, the president's job- approval rating is below 50 percent, while recent polls have showed 80 percent of Americans view Mrs. Bush favorably.

"Part of this is just that she's so much more popular than the president at home. What's not to like about Laura Bush,'' asks Barbara Burrell, an associate professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, who's written a book looking at the role of Hillary Clinton as first lady.

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