All this added up to trouble for Bush in the late spring and early summer. A June poll commissioned by the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies found that Bush was leading Kerry by only nine points, 51-42, in the rural portions of the seventeen states then considered to be presidential election battlegrounds. That made Kerry's position two points better than Gore's at the close of the 2000 race, and internal surveys suggested Kerry was doing even better in the rural areas of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Kerry operatives were enthusiastically talking up the notion that their man might restore the glory days of the 1980s and early '90s for the Democratic Party in the Upper Midwest, when its candidates were surging in the rural vote in key regions, enabling populist Democrats like Iowa's Harkin, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold to win Senate seats from Republicans. "This year, rural voters are dissatisfied with George Bush, so these are new votes for Kerry and the Democratic Party," Norris announced at a gathering of the party's Rural Caucus.
This fall, however, after an ugly August that saw more media attention paid to Kerry's Swift Boat service in Vietnam than to his stands on trade policy and rural healthcare, Kerry backers are not nearly so confident. In addition to Kerry's lack of clarity on the war and his inability to craft a compelling message on economic issues, his style on the stump has proven ineffective and his campaign has failed to figure out how to connect with rural voters. Too often, Kerry and his aides seem to be using the region and its residents as a backdrop for photo opportunities. His "events" are frequently small and often require a ticket to gain entry. When Kerry passed through Wisconsin's Grant County in July, his aides told local Democrats not to promote his stop in the county seat too aggressively. "They said they didn't want too big a crowd because they might attract protesters," recalls Arlene Siss. "It was just ridiculous. They spent so much time worrying about making everything look right that they missed the chance to reach a lot more people than they did."
When Bush passed through Lancaster and other communities in southwest Wisconsin in early May, he was greeted by large crowds that had been drawn out by an exceptionally aggressive advance operation that does not hesitate to suggest shuttering local schools so students can meet the President. Bush, who delights in stump campaigning in small towns, gave quick speeches and then waded into the crowds, tossing around nicknames, posing for snapshots and generally enjoying himself. Some of the pictures of the President campaigning in Lancaster were so compelling that they ended up on the front of literature being distributed throughout the state. Kerry's stop in Lancaster a few weeks later, by comparison, was a lifeless affair. He gave no speech. He just walked along a rope line for a few minutes, shook some hands and then hopped back on the bus.
Even Kerry's "impromptu stops" are choreographed so precisely that the spontaneity is squeezed out of them. Perhaps worst of all, Kerry seems to be trying too hard. Almost weekly, he is photographed shooting a gun, in an attempt to counter the concerns of rural male voters about past Democratic support for gun control. But images of Kerry shooting skeet in a button-down shirt do about as much for his man-of-the-people image as those pictures of him windsurfing off Nantucket. According to Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon, "People see Kerry as a big-city Northeastern senator who has no clue about rural voters." McKinnon has told reporters that in focus-group sessions the Bush campaign organized, "We asked voters, 'How many of you can imagine George Bush filling up his own car at the gas station?' Half the respondents said they could see that happening. We asked them the same about Kerry. Not a single person thought they could see John Kerry filling up his car."