Bush reins in his base with an 'average Joe' aura

Bid to connect to the big-buckle crowd at a rodeo here woos some, alienates others.

Kelli Stewart has been pen pals with Barbara Bush for four years now. They talk about everything, from sports to school to the books they've just read.

But when this 12-year-old from Magnolia, Texas, had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Bush's son - the president - she was worried she would embarrass herself.

"I thought I was going to be really nervous, but he talks to you like you're an old friend," says Kelli, smiling just enough to show the blue rubber bands binding her braces.

While President Bush's stop this week at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo may have been a chance to connect with his core supporters, it was also a way to remind Americans why they like him.

No. 1 reason, as discovered by Kelli: He's personable. "I told him, 'I know your mom.' And he said, 'That's neat.' And then I gave him my baseball cap."

After months of attacks by Democratic presidential contenders claiming he's out of touch with ordinary citizens, Bush is repairing the damage Texas-style.

He's donning cowboy boots, spending time at his ranch, and reverting back to what many analysts believe won him the election in 2000: his regular-Joe appeal.

Along with visiting the world's largest rodeo for the first time since he was governor of Texas, in the past weeks he's appeared at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race and visited a fishing superstore in Springfield, Mo. - and he's gotten some flak for attending "spectator sports" from critics who feel Bush should be attending to graver national problems.

"He is trying to remind the American people that he's just like you and me," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "Here's a man who is plainspoken, who likes stock-car races, and goes bird hunting.... He's anything but patrician blue blood."

Bush's wealthy New England background is not unlike that of Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry. But Bush has excelled at cultivating a different image.

"He's very down to earth," says Scott Satterfield, a Brahman cattle rancher in Palestine, Texas, who showed Bush his bulls. Bush made a special request to visit the hump-backed beasts at the livestock show. "He spent a long time talking to everyone and you could tell that he really enjoyed it, that he wasn't being fake."

Also making an appearance were the president's well-known wit and a penchant for practical jokes.

For instance, says Mr. Satterfield, his wife asked Bush if he'd received her letter with her recommendations for tort reform and speedier adoptions. The president joked, "Yeah, right."

In another instance, he climbed inside a new Ford Harley Davidson model truck and pretended to drive away - defying a sign that said: "Please do not sit inside."

"It was just funny," says Adrian Jackson, a Ford salesman who was one of just a few here who admitted he did not vote for Bush in the last election and backed Al Sharpton in Tuesday's Texas primary.

While Bush is in little danger of losing his home state, analysts say he's using visits like this to reassure core supporters - white conservative men - that he has the economy under control. Indeed, many boot-and-buckled cowboys voiced concern over what they saw as Bush's excessive spending and the deficit.

"He is clearly trying to solidify his base among white men by showing up at the Daytona 500 and Houston Rodeo, even by buying ads on ESPN," says Celinda Lake, a Washington pollster who coined the phrase "NASCAR Dads."

"He is reinforcing a kind of tough-guy image, the kind of guy who will take a strong stand to protect Americans, but one who also has a common touch."

Still, some here were unconvinced. "I think it was more of a publicity stunt," says Baltazar Garcia, kicking up sawdust as he wandered down aisles of prized cattle. He and his girlfriend came to see the rodeo and hear Enrique Iglesias perform. "I voted for Bush as governor, but not president. There is a huge difference between running a state and running the country. I mean, look at the economy."

But Mr. Garcia was in the minority. Bush's Texas roots and down-home charm were right at home in this crowd.

"Dubya's not the greatest speaker; he's not polished... He kind of fumbles for words and gets things wrong. But you can't help liking him," says John Churchill, a salesman at the Old Frontier Clothing booth in the rodeo's sales pavilion. "He comes across as a regular guy, as regular as you can be in that position."

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