As he began his seventh campaign swing this year through the battleground state of Wisconsin on a sunny day in late September, George W. Bush loaded a secret weapon onto his bus: Dr. Britt Kolar, a physician who played on the Yale rugby team with Bush in the 1960s. Seated at Bush’s side as the bus rolled through Lake Geneva, where he practices, Kolar began feeding the President the names of people who were lined up along the side of the road and of small business owners who had stepped out to watch. “Hey, Mary,” the President announced through the vehicle’s loudspeaker system, “wish we could stop.” “Hey there, this is the President. I hear you just opened your store. We’re gonna help small businesses.” On the President rolled, dropping references to local shops and restaurants and teams. It might sound hokey, but the crowds couldn’t get enough. They were cheering themselves hoarse, and although the Bush bus never stopped in their community, they headed home talking about how the President of the United States had taken the time to talk to them personally.
For critics who have a hard time understanding why Bush–after all the revelations regarding his misdeeds in Iraq, after his mismanagement of the economy to the extent that he is the first President since Herbert Hoover to produce a net loss of jobs, and after his bungling of the first debate so badly that all the old questions about his IQ resurfaced–remains a viable contender, the answer is: the Bush campaign. And Bush is the campaigner in chief.
White House political czar Karl Rove is running the best-financed presidential campaign ever, one that is also doing a brilliant job of spinning the media. But the GOP’s most effective tool is the candidate. “A lot of Democrats have a very hard time admitting this, maybe because they have never seen one of his rallies, but Bush is a very good campaigner,” says George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor who has long argued against making the mistake of underestimating Bush’s political skills. As in 2002, when Bush’s energetic campaigning on behalf of House and Senate candidates, especially in the South, helped upset the traditional calculus that says the President’s party loses ground in mid-term elections, he is campaigning with such determination and verve that it is not uncommon to hear backers like Beth Mueller, a 57-year-old Wisconsinite, describe his appearances in Racine as “electrifying.”
Of course, John Kerry works hard on the campaign trail. Like Bush he uses bus trips to get in touch with the rural stretches of too-close-to-call states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin. But the difference between the approaches of the two candidates is highlighted by the fact that Kerry often huddles at the back of his bus with aides. He is intimately involved with plotting the strategy of his campaign; he wants to be in on the discussion. Bush, happy to let others do the thinking, just wants to campaign.
Bush, who it is speculated will spend more time on the campaign trail this year than any President before him, and who frequently addresses more than 10,000 voters a day, clearly enjoys campaigning a lot more than he does presidenting. And why not? Everywhere he goes, he appears before congenial, generally pre-selected crowds, with the most loyal backers up front where the TV cameras can capture their cheers–and with tents full of phones at the rally site so the inspired can start making calls for the campaign as soon as the President finishes speaking. Those not likely to be so inspired are unwelcome at the rallies or near them. Frank Van den Bosch got busted for hoisting a sign that read “FU GW” as Bush’s motorcade passed through Platteville, Wisconsin. Nicole and Jeff Rank were removed in handcuffs from a Bush rally in Charleston, West Virginia, after revealing T-shirts with Bush’s name crossed out.
For the crowds that come to cheer, Bush puts on a good show. His open-shirt-with-rolled-up-sleeves look is calculated to convey the impression that while he and Kerry both may have attended prep schools and Yale, he is more of a down-home guy. Leaning against the podium, he laughs at his own jokes and struggles as much as ever with basic pronunciation, but he is never off-message. While his foibles convey an aw-shucks folksiness, he carefully follows a script designed to connect with the crowds: Evangelicals will hear a rant about “activist judges,” small-business owners a call for “tort reform.” And the rant is updated with each day’s talking points–for the crowds and, particularly, for the press. After losing the first debate, by the next day Bush was offering a version that had him winning–mainly by twisting Kerry’s reference to a “global test” into a refusal to defend the United States without the permission of Paris.
Observers who make the slightest attempt to analyze Bush’s statements see through them; the Seattle Times and the Portland Oregonian are the latest in a growing number of newspapers that endorsed Bush in 2000 but are now backing Kerry. But that’s of little concern to the Bush team; they’re more interested in direct contact with voters. They know that Bush the man polls better than the Bush presidency, and they’re convinced that the way to retain the White House is to rally the base personally. As in 2002, when the strategy worked better than Bush’s backers or his foes could have imagined, they will put their candidate in front of as many Americans as possible between now and Election Day.